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Inside Politics

Gandhi has power, but declines post

A fabled name in India

By Bill Schneider
CNN Political Unit

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Ever hear of a politician who wins a stunning victory and then refuses to take office?

It's unusual, but it's exactly what India Sonia Gandhi did, and it's also the political Play of the Week.

In recent years, India's Congress Party has been in decline -- eclipsed by the growing power of religious fundamentalists.

So, confident of victory for his Hindu-nationalist party, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called an election six months early. The country was supposed to be feeling good. India's high-tech sector was booming. The government's campaign slogan: "India shining.''

Underneath the shining surface, however, there was discontent.

The opposition leader had a magical name and an ability to connect with India's discontented masses.

Gandhi is the widow of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and daughter-in-law of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whose father, Nehru, was India's first prime minister.

This week, Sonia Gandhi led the Congress Party back to power in a sensational upset victory. Her opponents protested that because Gandhi was born in Italy, she should not have India's top job.

On Tuesday, amid protests from supporters, Gandhi stunned her party with the following announcement.

"The post of prime minister has not been my aim. I was always certain that if I ever found myself in the position that I am in today, I would follow my inner voice. Today, that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post."

Who can blame her? Fanatics assassinated both her husband and her mother-in-law.

But Gandhi is not leaving politics. She handpicked the new prime minister and will control policy as leader of the party.

"She is the queen. She is appointing a regent to run some of the business of government for her," said the Congress Party's Mani Shankar Aiyar. "But it is she who will be in charge and who will continue to direct the fortunes of the Congress Party."

Power but no top position. That's a novel concept -- and the political Play of the Week.

India has a tradition of renunciation and self-sacrifice. It goes back to Mahatma Gandhi, who peacefully led India's fight for independence from British rule. He was no relation to Sonia Gandhi, but clearly an inspiration.


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