Gandhi's widow chosen to head Congress Party

May 23, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW DELHI, India -- The long-entrenched elders of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's political party moved quickly yesterday to continue his family's political dynasty by nominating his Italian-born wife as its new leader.

Sonia Gandhi's appointment capped an emotional day in India'scapital, one in which her husband's body was brought back to receive full state funeral honors.

The choice of Mrs. Gandhi, 45, as her assassinated husband's successor was immediately criticized by political analysts as the latest example of senior leaders' inability to reform the Congress Party, a once-dominant but now deeply troubled organization.

But among the grieving thousands still waiting last night to view Mr. Gandhi's remains, the sudden choice of Congress' leadership made a lot of sense for the moment.

"It has to be her for the time being, because the Congress Party depends on the Gandhi family," said Vidya Sajar, 51, a manager in a publishing company. "Without her right now, the party would disintegrate."

Added Rishi Bev, 31, an aircraft technician who supports another Indian political party, "She will get sympathy votes for the time being. Later on . . . she may lose her popularity."

But a long-standing Congress critic, Bhabani Sen Gupta of Delhi's Center for Policy Research, termed the choice of Mrs. Gandhi a "desperate, absolutely incredible, bankrupt move" that would gain Congress "absolutely nothing" when India's national elections resume in three weeks.

Leo E. Rose, a political scientist at the University of California who specializes in South Asian affairs, said here that Mrs. Gandhi reflected the continued dominance within the Congress Party of a non-elected elite whose members "feel threatened by the potential development of a new leader or a new system."

"It is not a rational political decision," Mr. Rose said. "It represents a desperate collection of politicians trying to hold on to their rewarding positions within the party."

Mrs. Gandhi, essentially a political unknown save for recently stepping up her participation in her husband's election campaign, was the unanimous choice of a Congress Party committee, party spokesman Pranab Mukherjee said in announcing her nomination as party president last night.

It was not immediately clear whether Mrs. Gandhi had even been asked whether she wanted the job, but Mr. Mukherjee maintained that there was "no question of her refusing the nomination."

Mrs. Gandhi, who spent much of yesterday sitting with her 21-year-old daughter by her husband's body lying in state, was not available for comment.

Congress leaders did not necessarily present her as a potential candidate for India's prime minister's office, only as head of their party. But, in the event that Congress won a majority of parliamentary seats, the party could appoint her prime minister with the proviso that she would have to win a parliamentary seat in a by-election within six months, Mr. Mukherjee said.

Mrs. Gandhi, an Indian citizen who was born in Italy and met her husband while the two were studying in England, "is not a foreigner," the party spokesman said.

"She is a housewife of the Rajiv Gandhi family. She will be projectedas the leader of the party. Under any circumstances, she will not allow the forces of destabilization, disruption and chaos to prevail in the country," Mr. Mukherjee said, sounding the Congress' campaign theme.

If her husband's assassination Tuesday has suddenly thrust her onto the world's stage, it was the murder of Mr. Gandhi's mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in 1984 that brought her for the first time into the Indian limelight.

After his mother's death, Mr. Gandhi assumed leadership of the party of his mother and grandfather -- India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru -- and was swept into the country's highest office with a record mandate.

Until then, Sonia Gandhi, the mother of two children, had been hidden in her mother-in-law's shadow and by what is said to be her intensely private nature.

Previously a bit awkward at public functions, it was only in the last year that Mrs. Gandhi began to take an active interest in the lifeblood of her husband's family, Indian politics. But Mrs. Gandhi is said to have long had her husband's ear and to be more than capable of expressing her own opinions.

A 1986 Indian newsmagazine article, in one of the few occasions on which she has been profiled here, described her as almost apolitical. Married to Mr. Gandhi since 1968, she did not give up her Italian citizenship until 1982.

The article said, however, that she had since plunged into upper-class Indian life. In recent photos, she was often wearing traditional Indian clothing.

Born a Roman Catholic, Mrs. Gandhi is reportedly not a deeply religious person. She and her husband were married in a civil ceremony.

She is quoted as once having said of her life in India: "I was so happy here that I had no reason to miss Italy. I missed the food, so I learned to cook; but other than that, I never felt like an outsider here."

But even before her husband's killing, her life in India was not without its scars.

Mrs. Gandhi is said to have been the first person to find her mother-in-law's body.

After that experience, she was said to lost more than 20 pounds and to have become "paranoid about her husband's security," said the article in India Today.

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