Gandhi's image as being above the rough-and-tumble of India's fractious coalition politics had suffered after she led the party in maneuvering to bring down the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in April, but failed to secure the necessary votes to take power herself. With few significant policy differences between the two major parties, September's election will be all about Sonia Gandhi. The Congress party has used the mythical power of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to rally jaded voters, while Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist party has vowed to make Gandhi's origins the centerpiece of its campaign. Get ready for the drama.
India's movie industry specializes in raucous mythological epics; melodramatic histrionics are the mainstay of Italian opera. The two worlds collided in New Delhi this week with the triumphant return to politics of Sonia Gandhi. The Italian-born widow of slain prime minister Rajiv Gandhi reclaimed the reins of her Congress party Tuesday, after rowdy protests, pleading deputations and even an attempted self-immolation by a despairing supporter coaxed her out of a self-imposed week in the political wilderness. Promising that "every drop of my blood belongs to this country," Gandhi galvanized party activists for a head-on battle against opposition attempts to center their campaign for September's election around the issue of her foreign birth. Gandhi's brief resignation had been prompted by three Congress leaders -- subsequently expelled -- echoing this concern. "She has shrewdly used the rebellion in the party to her own advantage," says TIME New Delhi correspondent Maseeh Rahman. "It's built up Congress's resistance to the opposition's main line of attack, and has helped her overcome her failure to form a government last month."