It was the most dramatic scene the Indian Parliament had ever witnessed. On the night of May 14, some 150 of the newly elected members of the Indian National Congress and allied parties took the podium one by one and begged Sonia Gandhi to accept the position of Prime Minister.
Gandhi -- the Congress Party President -- watched the drama unfold for four hours. But nothing would change her mind. "I have listened to my inner voice," she quietly told her supporters. She would continue as party leader and would work for the millions of Indians who voted for Congress in the May national election -- dealing a surprise defeat to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. But the new government would not be run by her. Instead, she named as prime minister her trusted adviser, former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh.
Gandhi was clearly the architect of the Congress victory. The Italian-born widow of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991 (and the daughter-in-law of the previously assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi), Sonia Gandhi appeared before huge crowds at more than 160 rallies during the three-month election campaign. Dressed in a cotton sari and often joined by her son, Rahul, 33, and daughter, Priyanka, 31, she traveled to India's villages, listening to the troubles of the poor. Her campaigning persuaded voters to reject the BJP's promises of a "shining India" and back Congress' social and rural agenda.
By turning down the top office, Gandhi sets a new tone for public life in India. For much of its 55 years of independence, India has been mired in political corruption. Now ordinary Indians hope that Gandhi, who has never held high office and has a clean reputation, will tackle corruption and speed up India's development. Says Sanjay Kumar, a fellow at New Delhi's Center for the Study of Developing Societies: "Sonia Gandhi will try and ensure the image of the government as one that cares for the common man."
With Congress barely six weeks in power, Gandhi is already signaling the role she intends to play. She is leaving policy decisions to Singh and his team of liberal economists, although she will have some say behind the scenes. Gandhi will focus on the politics of managing her resurgent party and a fragile coalition of 18 partners. Her first test comes in July, when she embarks on a month-long journey across rural India, to reestablish Congress' position in densely populated but poor states such as Uttar Pradesh. She'll confer with village leaders, who will soon benefit from the new government's huge development budget. "Her priorities are clear: Keep the Congress and its allies stable, and support social welfare programs without dragging our feet on economic reform," says Salman Khursheed, her aide.
India's most powerful woman rarely speaks to the media. Intensely shy, she retreated into private life after her husband's death. But Congress could not find a leader capable of uniting the party. So party elders begged her to enter politics. In 1998, she relented, becoming party chief and later opposition leader in Parliament. She worked 16-hour days and familiarized herself with key issues. She developed into a passionate speaker, increasingly comfortable in Hindi. And she revamped the party, requiring key state ministers to submit performance reviews and insisting that contributions to party coffers be scrupulously accounted for -- a move that improved Congress' image.
Gandhi, who has only a high school education, makes no claim to be an intellectual. Her great strength is her commitment to fair play and decency. If she keeps that focus, she will make her mark.