Vol 2, PW 25 (06 Jan 99) People & Policy

What many once thought was unthinkable has now become a distinct possibility.

Sonia Gandhi, Italian-born widow of the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, is being seriously touted as the next PM of India. As President of the opposition Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi is slowly emerging as a leading contender to replace Atal Behari Vajpayee, if and when the BJP is overthrown in mid-term elections.

One opinion poll in the respected India Today news magazine puts her popularity rating higher than that of Vajpayee. In the past, Sonia Gandhi, a shy and retiring figure, was content to sit back and enjoy her position as a figurehead, leaving the real job of politicking to trusted stalwarts like Manmohan Singh, former finance minister and Sharad Pawar, former Maharashtra chief minister.

Not any more. In recent weeks, Sonia Gandhi has gained in confidence, occasionally rejecting the advice of closest supporters.

In one telling incident, she refused to back Manmohan Singhs passionate appeal to support the present BJPs attempts to open up the insurance sector, instead preferring to listen to grassroots Congress opposition. These days, she comes out with comments like, "I entered politics because I could not see the sacrifices made by my family go in vain" (both husband Rajiv and mother-in-law Indira were assassinated).

Indeed, many now compare Sonia to Indira Gandhi: steely, uncompromising, a control freak. Her detractors, however, are many, found largely among the chattering classes of Delhi and Mumbai.

For them, it is little short of a national shame that India is toying with the idea of an Italian as PM.

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