Vol 3, PW 9 (26 May 99) People & Policy

Can a foreigner be Prime Minister of India Thats the question exercising most of India and one which is certain to be the central theme in the run-up to Septembers elections.

It centres on Sonia Gandhi, aged 52, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has ruled India for 38 of its 52 years since independence. Until now, its a question that has been only fleetingly examined; most pundits too ashamed to admit that a nation of 950m inhabitants cant find a leader born at home.

On 17 May, Ms Gandhi answered the question herself when she abruptly resigned as Congress Party president and candidate for PM after three senior party figures questioned her Italian origins*. Deeply wounded, Ms Gandhi refused to reconsider her decision until Monday this week, when after intense pressure from supporters and a sycophancy unique even by Indian standards, she withdrew her resignation.

By then the damage was done. The three rebels were expelled from Congress but promptly announced plans to set up a new party - the Indian Nationalist Congress - in a move which could split the Congress vote in September, leaving the BJP once more with thelargest number of MPs in parliament.

Unlike Congress - fractured and disunited - the BJP these days appears a model of unity. Last week it signed a pact with 13 allies setting up the National Democratic Alliance.

For Atal Behari Vajpayee, it could mean a third shot as PM. *Sharad Pawar, former Defence Minister and Chief Minister of Maharashtra; Purno Sangma, former parliamentary speaker; and Tariq Anwar, a former Congress General Secretary.