Sonia Gandhi Returns to India After Surgery as Popularity Wanes

Sonia Gandhi Returns to India After Surgery
Sonia Gandhi, left, talks with Manmohan Singh, in this file photo from 2009. Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg

Sonia Gandhi, India’s most powerful politician, returned to New Delhi about a month after undergoing surgery overseas for an undisclosed condition, amid waning support for the ruling Congress party she heads.

During Gandhi’s absence, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government faced anger over its strident response to a 13-day hunger strike by anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare that garnered nationwide backing. The popularity of the Congress in India’s cities may have fallen by a third following the standoff, according to an opinion poll by research company Nielsen Holdings NV and Star News television channel.

“The distress in the government and the party was visible” with Gandhi incapacitated, said G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, managing director of New Delhi-based Development & Research Services. “She has to not only recover medically, but she also needs to draw up a plan to revive the party politically.”

Gandhi, 64, who has been Congress president since 1998, came back early morning today, the party’s General Secretary Janardhan Dwivedi said in a phone interview. She had undergone an operation abroad, the party announced on Aug. 4, without elaborating. Indian media reported she was treated at a hospital in New York.

Before leaving India, she temporarily named a four-member team to run party affairs that included her son Rahul Gandhi, who has been taking on a more prominent political role in recent months.

While Gandhi will continue as president of the Congress, she will give “more space” to Rahul in managing party affairs, Rao said. She is likely to need at least “a couple of months” to make a full recovery, the Times of India reported Sept. 6, without saying where it got the information.

Gandhi Dynasty

The confrontation between the government and protesters demanding tougher laws against corruption deepened after Hazare’s brief arrest on Aug. 16. Nationwide demonstrations and candle-lit vigils -- fueled by social media websites and 24-hour coverage on television -- put Singh’s government on the defensive. Hazare ended his fast Aug. 28 after lawmakers agreed to meet some of his demands when drafting legislation.

The widow of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia is the fourth member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to lead Congress, which has dominated Indian politics since independence from British rule in 1947. She was named the world’s ninth-most powerful person by Forbes magazine last year.

The Italian-born Gandhi unexpectedly turned down the position of prime minister after leading Congress and its allies to victory in the 2004 elections, amid concerns her ancestry would be attacked by Hindu nationalist opponents. She instead selected Singh to lead the country while staying as Congress president.

As head of the country’s National Advisory Council, a body that advises on planned legislation, Gandhi has focused on health policies, job creation and expanding the scope of subsidized food programs for the more than 800 million Indians the World Bank says live on less than $2 a day.

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