"She is a tremendous vote-catcher, not only because of the cachet of the Gandhi-Nehru family connection, but because she has endeared herself to the voters by observing traditional mourning customs after her husband's death," says TIME New Delhi correspondent Maseeh Rahman. "And an 'outsider' also has the advantage of appearing to be above this country's many caste, religious and linguistic divisions." If she is tapped to head the government Friday, Gandhi faces a rough ride. Enraged that its fall from power was precipitated by the betrayal of a notoriously corrupt regional politician, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is demanding early elections and has shown its intention to make Gandhi's foreign birth a wedge issue at the polls. And wedge issues are in short supply in the absence of significant policy differences between the major parties, and amid the profusion of regional parties. "The one thing she has going for her, though," says Rahman, "is the reluctance of most members of parliament to face a new election so soon after the last one." And fragile coalition politics are, of course, her birthright.
Six governments in three years is par for the course in Italy, but for India it's a relatively new experience. The connection may be deepened Friday, when New Delhi's squabbling politicians make a final decision on whether their next prime minister will be the Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi, who waited 18 years into their marriage to become an Indian citizen. Her similarly reluctant entry into politics last year has brought the Congress Party back from the doldrums to the brink of power.