Sonia Gandhi keeps India guessing

With an election looming, all eyes are on the Italian-born wife of a former prime minister, writes Peter Popham

India is on the threshold of its second general election in one-and-a-half years, one for which nobody shows much enthusiasm.

Sonia Gandhi caused it: the Italian-born widow of the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the only member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty still close to politics, is considered by Congress, the founding party of independent India, to be their best hope of doing well in the polls - if only they can persuade her to get involved. So strong is this this belief that on 4 December they brought down the government in a botched attempt to ingratiate themselves with her.

So far it has failed, but Sonia - Mona Lisa, the Sphinx, Madame, to give her more popular nicknames - makes the front pages here every day anyway. Keeping her company is a surprisingly large gang of female politicians, some formidable, some merely improbable.

Women in India remain far more enslaved in their traditional roles than is true anywhere in the West. It is still taken for granted that the birth of a daughter is a curse rather than a blessing - "may you be the mother of a hundred sons" is a standard blessing for brides. They are reared to be wives and mothers: women at high levels in business or the professions are still rare. Yet India's strongest prime minister to date was a woman, Sonia's mother-in-law, Indira - also much the most popular, according to a recent poll, despite having plunged the country into a state of emergency while in office. And right across this huge nation, female politicians bestride the headlines.

In West Bengal, Mamata Bannerjee draws crowds a mile long whenever she speaks. As homely as a pickled onion in appearance and author of seven novels, she is a child of refugees from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and has become the voice of the dispossessed in opposition to the 20-year rule of the Communists over the state. In Calcutta last week, following her expulsion from the Congress party, her supporters daubed her name on the road in their own blood.

In Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in the country, a champion of the Dalits (untouchables) called Mayawati ruled as chief minister for six months, indulging in a frenzy of emancipation, requiring her bureaucrats to give government jobs to thousands of outcastes, and building a large park in honour of the untouchables' champion, Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar.

In Bihar, Uttar Pradesh's neighbour to the east, notorious as the worst- governed state in India, the chief minister, Laloo Yadav, went to prison in July to await trial on charges of massive corruption. He was replaced amid much scornful comment by his semi-literate wife and mother of his nine children, Rabri Devi. Four months on, commentators agree that she has done a much better job than her husband - though not good enough to prevent a massacre of 60 low-caste men, women and children by a landlord- sponsored private army last month.

Finally, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the ex-chief minister and former movie star Jayalalitha, imprisoned last year on corruption charges, is free again and angling for an alliance with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. "India's Imelda" was revealed to be hoarding half a ton of silver, 10,500 saris and 350 pairs of shoes when her house was raided a year ago. Her imprisonment brought at least a temporary halt to a personality cult which saw the actress's fat-faced image plastered all over Madras and her cabinet ministers prostrating themselves before her in public.

However, the appearance of women having widespread power and influence is deceptive. Take the role of Sonia Gandhi. Since the murder of her husband, the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, in a Tamil Tiger's suicide attack in 1991, Sonia has been the last remaining hope within the Congress of keeping alight the memories and the loyalty commanded by the Nehru- Gandhi dynasty. Her sister-in-law Maneka, widow of Rajiv's brother Sanjay, is immersed in environmental and animal rights activism. Sonia's son, Rahul, is settled in London, and her daughter Priyanka is just settling into married life as Mrs Priyanka Wadhera, and has shown no urge to carry the torch. So Sonia it has to be.

But Sonia herself doesn't show much appetite for a political fight. She is the most enigmatic figure in Indian public life, and for the party with which she is so closely identified, much the most exasperating. In political cartoons she is often depicted as a sphinx. And it was due to a disastrous misreading of her mind that the coming election was called.

There is no doubt that Rajiv Gandhi was blown to pieces by a suicide bomber, but ever since the assassination controversy has raged over who else might be to blame. Were the Tigers abetted by sympathetic ethnic allies in the Tamil Nadu government? Was the laxity of security deliberate? Did Rajiv's political enemies conspire to have him killed? For the past five years a commission under Justice M C Jain has been sifting through the evidence, and in the autumn its interim report was leaked to the press. It concluded that the party most at fault was Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a regional party from Tamil Nadu and one of the 14-odd allies in the United Front government that has just fallen.

Congress, which has supported the United Front for the past 18 months without participating in it, demanded now that the government shed its tainted Tamil partner or else. By demonstrating the sincerity of its determination to nail those to blame for Rajiv's death, Congress aimed to cajole Sonia Gandhi to lead it into battle, or at the very least, to turn out and campaign.

It was a gambit born of chronic weakness, and it showed. Ever since, an excruciating scenario has been played out on the media. Sonia's birthday comes around: Congress dispatches a brass band to play outside her house - Sonia doesn't even poke her head outside. Congress convenes in Delhi in high excitement, Sonia expected any minute: she fails to appear. She does just enough to keep everyone guessing, being photographed with the party's lizard-like, octogenarian president, Sitaram Kesri, and other party leaders every other day, but she never hints at taking part.

This endless, futile wooing of the belle dame sans merci by the hapless lizard is the longest-running comedy in Indian politics. Last week, though, it finally showed signs of running out of steam when Sonia intervened to keep the charismatic, rebellious Mamata Bannerjee from being booted out of the Congress for disloyalty. All pricked up their ears at what might follow. Next day Mamata was kicked out anyway, and talk of Sonia storming to Congress's rescue suddenly died away.

According to the commentator Vinod Mehta, Sonia Gandhi is not a sphinx at all. "She has only a few passions - her family in Delhi and Milan, five-star shopping and privacy."

Love of family includes love of her late husband and determination to get to the bottom of his murder. But Sonia has ample reason not to get sucked into an election campaign: if she were to succumb, Congress's adversaries would throw everything at her, from her foreign birth - it was 15 years after coming to India before she took citizenship - to her family's alleged involvement in various hoary scandals, to fear of assassination. The notion that her family passion might, despite these disincentives, be converted into political energy shows just how short of ideas India's founding party has become.

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