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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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Waiting for Priyanka

Will another Gandhi come to the rescue?

WHENEVER THERE IS A crisis in the Congress party, public debate invariably centers on whether Sonia Gandhi, the widow of premier Rajiv Gandhi, will lead the party. The issue arose again in September, when former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao resigned as Congress president following corruption charges. "Bring Sonia, save the country," cried a powerful group in the Congress allied to the Gandhi family. But as she has done many times before, Sonia refused to oblige.

It is not hard to understand why. To begin with, Sonia loathes politics. Both her husband Rajiv and mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, were assassinated. As former Congress minister S.S. Ahluwalia puts it: "Much as we want Sonia to join the Congress, we realize that politics has brought her nothing but pain and suffering."

There is another reason why Sonia, 48, is reluctant to become a politician. Although she has been an Indian citizen for many years and dresses in Indian clothes, she is of Italian descent. If she joins politics, the Hindu radical Bharatiya Janata Party is likely to point to her foreign ancestry, which will not go well with the masses.

Her backers fear that the longer she takes to join the Congress, the greater the chances that the Gandhis will cease to become India's most iconic political dynasty. One way to avert this likely fate would be for Sonia's daughter, Priyanka, to jump into the political fray. Unlike her 26-year-old elder brother Rahul, Priyanka, 24, has political ambitions. She campaigned with her father during the 1989 national elections and since his death in 1991, efforts have been underway to induct Priyanka into the party's youth wing. "She is an extremely ambitious girl," says veteran columnist Kuldip Nayar. "I have no doubt she will join politics soon."

So far, Priyanka has kept a low profile. After graduating from Delhi University a few years ago, she taught briefly at a Delhi school for children with spastic paralysis. Later, she helped Sonia compile a book of Rajiv's pictures. But that is not to say Priyanka's interest in politics has waned. Last year, she accompanied Sonia during a pre-election campaign in Amethi, a parliamentary constituency in which Rajiv won several elections. Occasionally, she shows up as a spectator at an ongoing state-appointed inquiry commission into Rajiv's assassination.

Such public appearances, say Gandhi-watchers, are Sonia's way of keeping the Gandhi family in the limelight while at the same time carefully exposing Priyanka to the rough and tumble of Indian politics. Come the next general election, it will not be all that surprising to see Priyanka as one of the Congress's star candidates.

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