Sonia Gandhi quits as MP, denying she wants to make money from India

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The Independent Online

She may already be sanctified by the masses as the matriarchal head of the nation's most famous political dynasty but Sonia Gandhi, the leader of India's ruling Congress Party, has continued as the perennial martyr of Delhi politics.

Barely two years after she turned down the opportunity to follow her mother-in-law in becoming only the second woman to head the world's largest democracy, claiming it would damage her family life, Ms Gandhi, 59, yesterday stood down as an MP over allegations that she had wrongfully held two salaried posts within the Indian government.

The Italian-born Ms Gandhi, who has two children, led India's Congress Party to power in the 2004 election and has since overseen a ruling coalition in parliament. But she stunned her vast public following by resigning after right-wing opponents from the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed she was breaking parliamentary rules by working as an MP and the chairwoman of the National Advisory Council (NAC), a body set up to implement her government's electoral pledges.

Since 1959, India's constitution has forbidden MPs from holding what it calls an "office of profit", which essentially means any other government post that entitles them to pay and perks. The controversy over Ms Gandhi erupted after another member of parliament was disqualified this month for also serving as head of a state cinema development board. Since then, several petitions have been filed against other members of parliament, including Ms Gandhi.

In an emotional speech, Ms Gandhi angrily told her detractors she had no financial motivation for serving her country and said she was standing down as an MP to allow people to judge her and re-elect her to office after a by-election.

"Following the principles of probity and my inner conscience I am resigning my post in the parliament," she said. "I have done this because I think it is the right thing to do. Some people in the country have been trying to create an environment as if the government and the parliament are being used only to favour me. This has pained me greatly.

"I did not enter public life for any personal gains. I have made a resolve to serve the country and Indian society and to protect secular values. That is why, in keeping with the ideals of public life and politics as well as my own beliefs, I am resigning as an MP."

Despite her seemingly grand gesture, Ms Gandhi is expected to easily win a by-election in her constituency of Rae Bareli, a safe Congress seat, within the next 90 days.

The BJP, India's main opposition group, launched a scathing attack on Ms Gandhi, accusing her of capitalising on the scandal.

Ms Gandhi was first elected to parliament in 1999. After her party won elections in 2004, she refused to take the post of prime minister, but did take over the ruling coalition, and until last night headed the National Advisory Council, combining roles that saw her hold enormous sway over government policy.

Despite her resignation, Ms Gandhi will still wield political clout. Much of her influence is informal, and, as the leader of the political party she represents, she is seen by many Indians as the real power behind the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh.

A senior minister claimed last night that Mr Singh had intervened at the 11th hour and tried to dissuade Ms Gandhi from quitting, but political analysts believe that she has pulled off a master stroke by resigning, holding the moral high ground, before her inevitable return.

Suggestions of political manipulation aside, Ms Gandhi has always let it be known that she is a reluctant politician. Growing up the daughter of a middle-class construction magnate in the northern Italian town of Orbassano, she was thrust into the intense cauldron of Indian politics after marrying Rajiv Gandhi, scion of India's political first family, in February 1968.

His assassination in 1991 by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber left India's once-dominant Congress party out of power and in limbo. By the end of the 1990s, party chiefs turned to his widow to help guide the party back.

A life in the ruling dynasty

* 1946: Sonia Gandhi born to Italian parents in a small town south of Turin and raised in a conservative Roman Catholic family

* 1968: Marries Rajiv Gandhi, whom she met at Cambridge. Rajiv, son of former president Indira, is part of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that effectively ruled Congress politics since Indian independence

* 1983: Becomes a full Indian citizen and India's first lady after assassination of Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards in 1984

* 1991: Rajiv, campaigning to be re-elected Prime Minister, killed by a Tamil suicide bomber. Sonia withdraws from politics

* 1998: Agrees to re-enter politics. Although she wins her first parliamentary seat, the BJP defeat Congress in a humiliating 1999 general election

* 2004: Congress coalition triumphs in a landslide victory. Like her mother-in-law Indira, Ms Gandhi's appeal is to the aam aadmi (ordinary people) and she wins mass popular support. Refuses post of Prime Minister, and hands it to the Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh

* 2006: Steps down as a Member of Parliament amid controversy regarding her political posts.