For now, Sonia Gandhi won't be life of the party Many in India believed slain leader's widow was ruling group's last hope


AMETHI, India -- Only months ago, when Rajiv Gandhi's widow traveled from New Delhi to address a crowd here, this town bubbled with excitement.

On that August day, it did not matter that Sonia Gandhi had been born Italian, or that she spoke fractured Hindi, or that her name has been linked to a corruption scandal that tarnished the reputation of her husband, the former prime minister.

All that mattered was that the most famous and elusive of the surviving Gandhis had returned.

The speech that day, the first political utterances Mrs. Gandhi, 49, has ever made in public, lighted a blaze of hope in this town that was not known for much until it became the parliamentary seat for two sons of Indira Gandhi, India's prime minister for 15 years until her assassination in 1984.

First Sanjoy Gandhi, who was killed in a plane crash in 1980, then Rajiv Gandhi, who followed his brother as the local member of Parliament and his mother as prime minister, only to be assassinated in 1991, made Amethi one of the most favored towns in India.

Hints and feints

But the promise has turned to disappointment.

After two years of hints and feints that have tantalized many Indians and infuriated others, Sonia Gandhi has decided -- for the current general election at least, and many Indians think forever -- not to take the plunge into open politics.

And many think that such a plunge might have been the only sure way that the governing Congress Party -- the party of the Gandhis, the party that led India to independence in 1947, and the party that shows signs of being in deeper trouble now with many ordinary Indians than at any time in its history -- could hang on to power.

By resisting the calls of those who wanted her to contest the Amethi seat, or to have as the candidate her son, Rahul, 25, Mrs. Gandhi has taken a fateful step, for the Gandhi family as much as for the Congress Party.

Jeopardized position

What she has done, say many Indians who have watched her closely since a suicide bomber killed her husband during a campaign swing in the last election, is to lose or at least to jeopardize a position in which she has turned her widowhood into a font of virtually unchallengeable, if totally informal, power and protection for the Gandhis.

During her August trip, she challenged the competence of her husband's successor, P. V. Narasimha Rao, as Congress Party leader and as prime minister, telling the crowd that India was beset by "a chaotic atmosphere" that had betrayed the Gandhis' political legacy.

Her main grievance, friends say, was she believed that Mr. Rao had not done enough to speed the trial and conviction of Mr. Gandhi's killers, described by Indian prosecutors as Tamil separatists from Sri Lanka, and that he had not punished officials responsible for removing Mr. Gandhi's government security guards after Mr. Gandhi was defeated in a general election in 1989.

Rao's advantage

But Mr. Rao also has power over Mrs. Gandhi.

As prime minister, Mr. Rao has been in a position to speed up, or delay, a legal process under which India has petitioned Swiss courts to release Swiss bank documents said to identify the recipients of $35 million in bribes paid to Indian politicians by the Swedish arms company Bofors in the mid-1980s.

According to investigative reports appearing over the years in Indian newspapers, Rajiv Gandhi was the principal beneficiary of the bribes.

Early this month, Mrs. Gandhi made her choice.

As election nominations closed, she flew to Japan to keep a commitment for the foundation she runs in her husband's name, which is financed with millions of dollars in contributions from the Rao government and from Indian industrialists.

One friend said she was relieved, but fearful that if Mr. Rao wins the election against the current odds, he will use his renewed authority to punish Mrs. Gandhi by expediting prosecutions in the Bofors scandal.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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