Sonia Gandhi casts off foreigner tag to draw votes

Agence France Presse

New Delhi, February 2:

After leading India’s Congress party to a stunning victory in national elections, Sonia Gandhi is defying her image as an outsider to pull in big crowds ahead of key regional polls.

Italian-born Gandhi, 58, for years put down as dour and uninspiring, is now being hailed for a certain charisma on the campaign trail in Haryana, Bihar and Jharkhand states where voting takes place on Thursday.

Youngsters and women in particular flocked to hear the widow of slain prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, snubbing Hindu nationalist leader and former deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani who addressed an adjacent rally in Bihar’s Buxar district. “We have heard she quit the post of prime minister and we were eager to see what this women of sacrifice looks like,” said Sarita Pandey, a housewife. Gandhi turned down the prime ministership, despite desperate pleas from her allies, after the Congress-led coalition defeated the Hindu nationalists in the May legislative vote. Saying she listened to an inner voice, she handed the post to Manmohan Singh, a trusted former finance minister. The media dubbed her “Saint Sonia.” In Bihar, Gandhi, named the world’s third most powerful woman by Forbes magazine, did not disappoint her audience. “I am a woman, a mother and I understand your problems,” she said. In a state billed as India’s poorest and blighted by caste war, kidnapping and murder, Gandhi also addressed the issue of crime. But she trod carefully, wary of upsetting a key regional ally which gives crucial support to the Congress-led government in New Delhi.

“We cannot have children being kidnapped and crime disturbing social life. Bihar needs tranquility, harmony and development now,” she said. Political analyst Yashwant Deshmukh described Gandhi’s words as “carefully calibrated.”

“She is trying to do a balancing act. Gandhi’s strategy is to make sure Congress retains the dozen-odd seats it has in the 243-member Bihar assembly.

“For this, she has to exploit the strong anti-incumbency factor. But she has made her point in a way that will not upset her ally.” Analyst Neerja Choudhury agreed. “She is drawing in good crowds. She is being viewed differently after declining the prime ministership. She has left the ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’ tag far behind. “And there is no question of anyone seeing her as a political novice any more,” she said.

According to Sonia’s biographer Rasheed Kidwai, the Congress party’s good showing in last year’s federal polls was due to the “strategic alliances” she forged with regional parties. “This trend is still continuing.”