Will India's New Iron Lady Lead Congress Back To Power?

Sonia Gandhi no longer needs to introduce herself as "India's daughter-in-law." After a year in politics, she is becoming as recognizable and as tough-minded as her mother-in-law, formidable former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The once-reserved widow of Rajiv Gandhi, who, like Indira, was assassinated in office, is in firm control as leader of the Congress Party, India's oldest. And she looks set to push the rickety ruling coalition led by the Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party out of power soon.

In fluent Hindi, the Italian-born Gandhi hammers out a message that her voters and the global business community want to hear: She promises to revitalize India and put it back on the road to economic growth. Aides say a Congress government would target 7% annual growth so that it could engineer "economic reform with a human face." Party spokesman Ajit Jogi says Congress wants to "create an atmosphere where you attract foreign capital and generate employment."

Although the next national election need not take place for four years, Gandhi--clad in a traditional sari, her hair in a Western flip--has been in electioneering mode for a month. Since assuming the party leadership, Gandhi hasn't rushed to destabilize the BJP government. Her advisers, many of them close confidants of her late husband, pointed to the risks of inheriting a sliding economy with a budget deficit running at 6.5% of gross domestic product and a nation wracked with intercommunal discord and increasing lawlessness. But lately, Gandhi has been saying that Congress is "prepared to lead the nation again." And polls show that her party could win a majority of seats if an election were held today.

That alone is a tribute to her growing political savvy. Barely two years ago, the ramshackle and undisciplined Congress was ejected from power in the wake of a corruption scandal. Since then, Gandhi has restored party discipline and established herself as undisputed leader in the mold of Indira or Rajiv's grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister after independence. "The Gandhi dynasty is the party's cement," says Dhirubhai Sheth, a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.

BIG TEST. Sonia is molding that cement into election victories. In local contests in November, Congress won three of the four states it had earlier lost to the BJP, such as industrial Maharashtra and the capital city of New Delhi. Starting in November, regional elections will give Gandhi a chance to put Congress back in power in India's southern states and in the populous "Cow Belt" states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The latter are at the core of the Hindi heartland and the backbone of the BJP's support.

Many Congress foot soldiers are champing at the bit. They want Gandhi to pick up the pace and push hard to bring down the government now. So far, however, Sonia's tactic of standing back while the ruling coalition collapses under its own weight from internal squabbling and mounting scandals seems to be paying off. "We do not want to hijack power," says party veteran Kamal Nath.

Legitimacy and survivability are increasingly important concerns. Gandhi doesn't want to face an election until she thinks she can win big. Meantime, she is trying to show that she can deliver. After Congress' win in Delhi, Gandhi is working to resuscitate the capital by, for example, hiring consultants such as Pricewaterhouse-Coopers to help solve the city's chronic power shortages.

India has run through four governments in the past three years. Its new iron lady seems set to change all that as she wins over a nation weary of political uncertainty.

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