India's Congress Party rallies for Sonia Gandhi
May 17, 1999
NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- The elite working committee of the Congress Party was scheduled to hold an urgent meeting on Monday to support Party President Sonia Gandhi.
Last month, Gandhi led opposition groups in bringing down the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India's 13-month-old coalition government, in a no-confidence vote, forcing the country's third election in as many years.
Congress is now the main challenger to the ousted BJP coalition in elections later this year.
The Congress party said on Monday, before the meeting, that three top members who have rebelled against Italian-born Gandhi's leadership of the party were isolated and would have to apologize or quit.
"They (the rebels) are totally isolated," Congress spokesman Ajit Jogi said. "Either they will have to apologize or they will have to go," he said.
Three Congress leaders, including Sharad Pawar, the leader of the opposition in the disbanded lower house of parliament, said Gandhi, 52, should stay out of the prime ministerial race because of her foreign origins.
"It is not possible that a country of 980 million, with a wealth of education, competence, and ability can have anyone other than an Indian, born on Indian soil, to head its government," a letter written jointly to Gandhi by former parliament speaker, P.A. Sangma, senior leader Tarique Anwar and Pawar said.
Sonia, as she is popularly called, emerged from virtual seclusion to accept the leadership of the Congress party last year, seven years after the assassination of her husband, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
"We cannot afford to be lenient at this stage," Jogi said, referring to elections scheduled for September.
Congress leaders have projected Gandhi, heir to India's celebrated Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty as the main challenger to ousted Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in the elections.
The BJP and its allies, which first raised the Italian heritage issue, were gladdened by the revolt within the ranks of its arch-rival.
"We are pleased to see there are some in the Congress who have feelings of nationalism," state radio quoted BJP chief Kushabhau Thakre as saying.
Pawar, a powerful leader with a strong base in the western state of Maharashtra, has been known to have larger ambitions, analysts said.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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