The Gandhi family appears poised to re-enter Indian politics, four years after the assassination of the last of the country's three Nehru-Gandhi prime ministers. Rajiv Gandhi's Italian-born widow, Sonia, broke her political purdah this week and addressed a rally in her late husband's old constituency. That's increased speculation that their children will soon opt for a career in politics. Andrew Whitehead looks at India's continuing affection for its most famous political dynasty:
She spoke for just seven minutes. Her well-rehearsed Hindi had little in common with the local dialect. If it had been anyone else, the peasant farmers and landless labourers - who made their way to the rally by bus, truck and bullock cart - would have returned home feeling cheated.
Sonia Gandhi's brief speech has demonstrated the political resilience of India's most illustrious dynasty. Three generations of the Nehru-Gandhi family have served as prime minister - Jawaharlal Nehru; his daughter, Indira Gandhi; and her son, Rajiv Gandhi. They governed India for thirty-eight of its first forty-two years as an independent country. Now it seems a new generation of Gandhis is intent on entering the shifting sands of Indian politics. It sounds like the political feudalism all too common in South Asia. And in part it is. But India is a democracy not just in name. Its electorate is experienced at chucking-out the corrupt and incompetent.
The rally was the first Sonia Gandhi has addressed since her husband Rajiv's assassination four years ago. In that time, she's become the closest India has these days to royalty. Most visiting dignitaries - from heads of state, to triumphant beauty queens - pay a courtesy call to the Gandhis' downtown Delhi bungalow. Quite a transformation for the middle class Italian girl who Rajiv Gandhi courted while studying in England.
The marriage was, by all accounts, a strong one. Sonia became an Indian national, took to wearing saris and studied Hindi. She is still all too obviously grieving her husband's death. Ever since the assassination, she's been a powerful force behind the scenes in India's ruling Congress party. But she turned down all invitations to accept party office. Until this week, she had never spoken out publicly on political issues, and never openly taken sides in the party's bitter infighting.
It's difficult to say what's prompted Sonia to change her stance One Gandhi loyalist recounts how he spent half-an-hour advising her on political strategy to be confronted by stone-faced silence. Sonia Gandhi - he says - has the very unItalian virtue of inscrutability.
Judging by her rally address, she seems to feel that Rajiv Gandhi's political legacy is being squandered by his successors within the Congress party. Travelling to Amethi, the heart of her husband's old Parliamentary constituency, attracting an enthusiastic and aggressively loyal audience and making a headline-capturing speech, is not a bad way of demonstrating political muscle.
The people of Amethi have good reason to be grateful to the Gandhis. Rajiv was an assiduous constituency MP and his wife was always at his side. He's remembered for building roads, opening schools, expanding hospitals and bringing in power lines. Having a prime minister for your local MP can be a big asset. Since his death, development in Amethi has come to a shuddering halt. The local legend of a Rajiv Gandhi golden age has helped the family maintain its popularity.
Amethi would be only too pleased to have another Gandhi represent it in Parliament. The present Congress party incumbent has already said he's just keeping the seat warm. Sonia would certainly win if she stood. She has charisma - and there's no doubting her commitment to her adopted country. But there's the problem. A foreigner, however well connected, will never be able to get far in Indian politics.
Her children do not suffer that liability. Neither has yet given any firm indication of political ambitions - but most believe that's just a matter of time. Priyanka, who's 23, accompanied her mother to Amethi. She's personable and confident, and her likeness to her grandmother, Indira, has encouraged speculation about a political career. But it's her elder brother, Rahul - less well-known to the Indian public - who may well take on his father's old constituency. In the words of one local party worker: the tradition here is that the first-born son inherits, and that's why we want Rahul.
The political weaning of a new set of Gandhis wouldn't matter so much if India had powerful personalities at its helm. But none are in sight. The government has been so desperate to demonstrate that it has the Gandhi hallmark, it's just renamed Connaught Place, the commercial hub of Delhi, in honour of the Gandhis. The Gandhi name has lost elections in the past as well as won them. But the political tremors prompted by Sonia Gandhi's speech suggest that the family may still have the power to reshape Indian politics.