Sonia Gandhi stakes claim for top job with denunciation of Vajpayee

For years, Sonia Gandhi has struggled to convince Indians that she is fit to wear the mantle of the political dynasty into which she married, let alone to become premier.

Her opponents have not allowed the world to forget that she was born in Italy, or that - despite 35 years in India - she has yet to conquer her thick foreign accent when speaking Hindi. They portray her as aloof, out of touch with the vast nation once ruled by her husband, Rajiv, who was assassinated 12 years ago, and her formidable mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, who was cut down by her own bodyguards in 1984.

But India's political pundits gave Sonia Gandhi unusually enthusiastic reviews yesterday after her blistering performance in a no-confidence vote in India's parliament.

Their verdict was that she might at last have cemented her leadership.

The gladiatorial contest between her and the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, dominated the national headlines for two days, and ended in the early hours yesterday. Indians arose to find their newspapers full of reports of the debate alongside full-page advertisements marking the 59th birthday of her late husband, who was blown up by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in 1991. For one day at least, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the party that for so long dominated post-independence India seemed in ascendancy anew.

Sonia Gandhi and her allies were always certain to lose the no-confidence vote. The result, 312 to186, was a formality. What was significant, though, was the new forcefulness that she displayed as she laid into the government as "incompetent, insensitive, irresponsible and brazenly corrupt".

Five years ago, she was persuaded to assume presidency of the Congress Party, which was riven with divisions and a shadow of its former years. She did not want the job. But now, there was a "new combative quality about her", said Manini Chatterjee, political writer for the Indian Express paper. Another analyst, Mahesh Rangarajan, said her performance was "a major milestone in her evolution as a political leader. She was staking a claim for the top job."

Mr Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party has suffered many blows since it assumed power. There are four state elections later this year. General elections loom next year.

The BJP, and the Hindu nationalists aligned with it, will continue to jeer at Ms Gandhi's foreign origins. But now, it seems, she has an answer. As she said in parliament: "When I talk of the nation, they talk of my style and language."

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