India electrified by the widow's words

TIM McGIRK

New Delhi

India's Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, has had a tough week. Booed at the site of a train crash, in which nearly 400 passengers were killed, and harassed by Kashmiri rebels holding four Western tourists hostage, the septuagenarian premier has another worry: the wrath of an Italian widow.

She is Sonia Gandhi, whose late husband, Rajiv, was assassinated in 1991. Although Mrs Gandhi, 47, is still regarded as a foreigner by many (she took Indian citizenship years after her marriage), she is nevertheless considered to be the regent of the Gandhi dynasty which has dominated the Congress Party now in power. The widow is not pleased with Mr Rao.

In the first public speech of her life, at the town of Amethi in northern India on Thursday, Mrs Gandhi broke through her legendary shyness and attacked the government for failing to track down her husband's killers. Rajiv was blown up by a suicide bomber, part of a complex assassination plot that may have been masterminded by Sri Lankan Tamil separatists.

Wearing a simple cotton sari, and speaking Hindi, she addressed a rally in Amethi, where Rajiv and his brother, Sanjay, served as MPs. The Gandhis have lavished hospitals, roads and schools on Amethi and Amethi adores the widow. Unlike many Western women who look gawky in the sari, Mrs Gandhi wears it with elegance.

She told the townsfolk: "I have the honour of being a member of the family that spent its life in the service of people. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi had certain principles and a vision. They never compromised on their principles. The principles for which they sacrificed their lives are under test today. Divisiveness is spreading in the country," she said.

Mrs Gandhi's speech lasted only 10 minutes, but it grabbed the front- page headlines of every Indian newspaper. The indirect attack on the Congress government is expected to spur dissidents within the party to break openly with Mr Rao.

Congress has dominated India since for nearly half a century. Under Mr Rao's indecisive leadership, it is limping towards a probable defeat in general elections next year. The downtrodden, lower-caste Hindus have forsaken Congress, preferring other smaller, regional parties that vow to fight for their rights. Hindu nationalists from the Bharatiya Janata Party are expected to oust the Congress government, a prospect that worries many of India's 120 million Muslims.

It seems improbable that Mrs Gandhi would allow herself to be pushed forward as a challenger to Mr Rao. One possibility is that some Congress strongmen - Sharad Pawar, the ex-chief minister of Mahrashtra, Mahdurao Scindia, Minister of Human Resources, and S B Chavan, the Home Minister - might use her tirade as an excuse to force Mr Rao to step down. Many inside Congress claim a stronger candidate is needed, somebody who can do battle against the rightwing Hindus in the coming elections. Rivalry among party bosses is so fierce that they may never agree on a successor to Mr Rao, who is suffering from heart trouble.

Mrs Gandhi's intentions remain enigmatic. One Congress parliamentarian, S S Ahluwalia, described the widow's remarks as "a cry for justice" over Rajiv's murder. "Sonia Gandhi is not alone, the entire nation wants justice. No political motive should be attributed to her statements."

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