Key Gandhi dynasty figure enters public life in India Widow, daughter-in-law of murdered leaders energizes Congress Party


SRIPERUMBUDUR, India -- In a move that her supporters hope will shape Indian politics for years to come, Sonia Gandhi, widow of one assassinated prime minister and daughter-in-law of another, made an emotional entry into public life yesterday.

"The time has come when I feel compelled to put aside my personal feelings and step forward," the Italian-born Gandhi told tens of thousands of jubilant supporters at a rally in this southern Indian town, where her husband was slain. "My devotion to our country and her people is unwavering and absolute."

Although she did not say that she would seek office herself, the crowd responded to her speech with cries of "Prime Minister Sonia!"

Gandhi's decision to join the political fray upset all calculations about the outcome of the national election that is to be held on four successive weekends in February and March. It electrified the long-dominant Congress Party, which her family has run for more than a half-century but which has recently suffered humiliating defections and other setbacks.

Yesterday's speech was also a statement by the Gandhi family that it is determined not to fade from the forefront of Indian politics. There was widespread speculation not only that Gandhi would seek the prime minister's job but also that her daughter Priyanka, who sat beside her as she spoke yesterday, and

perhaps also her son, Rahul, might run for Parliament.

The Gandhis have been one of the 20th century's most resilient political dynasties. They are not related to Mohandas K. Gandhi, the founder of modern India, but trace their political lineage back to the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who took office in 1947 and served until his death in 1964.

Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, became prime minister in 1966 and served, with a two-year interruption, until her assassination in 1984. Her son Rajiv succeeded her and held office for four years. He was campaigning for a return to power in 1991 when he was killed in Sriperumbudur.

Since Rajiv Gandhi's death, the Congress Party has slowly lost power and influence. Partly as a result of its decline, India has entered a period of political instability, with three governments since the last national election in 1996.

Until yesterday, the Congress Party hoped only to finish a decent second in the coming vote and perhaps cobble together a new ruling coalition. But Sonia Gandhi's entry into politics has set off a wave of euphoria among the party faithful, who only a few days ago were consumed with pessimism and recriminations. They believe she will be able to build a coalition of women, young people and the poor that will propel them to victory.

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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