The widow at No 10 fails to restore Congress fortunes

Tim McGirk in New Delhi watches the scramble to capitalise on the legacy of India's prime dynasty
For Indians, 10 Jan Path has become as famous as 10 Downing Street for Britons. It is not where the Indian Prime Minister lives, but the New Delhi home of Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Rajiv Gandhi. Increasingly, the fate of the governing Congress party is in her hands.

Over the past week her driveway has been jammed withCongress ministers, parliamentarians and state legislators paying court to the widow of the late prime minister. Mrs Gandhi, 47, was wooed by two warring factions: one headed by the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, and the other by two party rebels, Arjun Singh, a former cabinet minister, and N D Tiwari, a powerful party boss from Uttar Pradesh state.

Mrs Gandhi, a painting-restorer by training, was trying to patch up differences between the two factions before a split occurred in the party that has dominated Indian politics for nearly half a century.

More accustomed to Indian miniatures than to the broad canvas of ideologies and intrigues in today's Congress party, Mrs Gandhi failed in her restoration. On Friday the rebels broke away from the party.

Mrs Gandhi has always maintained an enigmatic silence on party affairs but this time word leaked out of 10 Jan Path that she was upset by the Prime Minister's "lukewarm'' and ``evasive" response to her fence-mending. Political observers who engage in the arcane practice of trying to interpret Mrs Gandhi's moods through her silence claim she snubbed the Prime Minister at a wreath-laying ceremony yesterday marking the fourth anniversary of her husband's assassination. Mr Rao arrived late, one minute before the service ended, and she wheeled away without greeting him.

The rebels were also hovering at Rajiv Gandhi's memorial, for they and Mr Rao are all trying to pass themselves off as the heirs of the Nehru- Gandhi dynasty which has ruled the party since even before independence in 1947.

So far, the split does not pose much of a threat to Mr Rao. Twelve MPs defected but many more are showing growing signs of discontent with Mr Rao, despite the economic growth his reforms have produced. Mr Singh, claiming to represent the "real" Congress party, and Mr Tiwari were able to attract more than 30,000 disgruntled party workers to a rally on Friday in New Delhi.

They are blaming Mr Rao for the party's debacle in the last round of state-assembly elections and are demanding that he resign as party leader.

Mr Singh and Mr Tiwari say that only by dumping Mr Rao now can Congress rebuild itself in time to stave off certain defeat in next year's general election against a growing movement of right-wing Hinduism. "There is no question of toppling the government," Mr Singh asserted.

At an emergency meeting over the weekend with his party loyalists, Mr Rao decided to take disciplinary action against the dissidents, threatening them with a six-year expulsion from the party. But the momentum against Mr Rao is rolling. Several of his "loyalists", including Sharad Pawar, the powerful former chief minister of Maharashtra, found excuses not to attend Mr Rao's council of war. In parliament last week Mr Rao narrowly escaped a no-confidence motion over the army's failure to prevent a Muslim shrine being burnt down in Kashmir.

That Congress's future depends on an Italian-born housewife with no political qualifications shows, according to analysts in New Delhi, how far the party which produced such giants as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi has sunk.

Few observers give the party any chance of winning next year's general election. India will most probably be governed by the emerging right-wing Hindu parties or by a coalition of parties divided on lines of region, caste and religion.

It bodes ill for Mahatma Gandhi's dream of a secular, united India.