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India: Italian-Born Gandhi Defies Odds In Tradition-Bound Country

Sonia Gandhi, once derided by a political rival as "an Italian dog," is poised to become India's new prime minister. Recent elections have put to an end to a debate about whether her foreign birth would keep the widow of Rajiv Gandhi from ruling the world's largest democracy.

Prague, 14 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Daughter of a Roman Catholic building contractor, Sonia Maino was born 57 years ago in the northern Italian town of Orbassano outside Turin. Now, she is set to take over as prime minister -- of India, that is.

Italian-born Sonia Gandhi addressed reporters in New Delhi yesterday after watershed elections finally put to rest a decade-old debate about whether her foreign birth would prevent her from ever presiding over the world's largest democracy as head of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. "Over the next few days, the process of government formation will gather momentum," Gandhi said. "The Congress Party will take a lead to ensure that our country has a strong, stable, and secular government at the earliest."

Gandhi, widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, overcame a vicious personal campaign against her to lead the Congress Party to an upset win over a Hindu nationalist-led coalition that had insisted she was unfit to rule. Although Congress is likely to lead the next government, it still needs an alliance with other parties -- and whether all would accept a foreign-born prime minister isn't clear. Still, if Gandhi follows in her mother-in-law Indira's footsteps and becomes prime minister -- as many expect she will -- it will have capped off a remarkable journey for an Italian woman in traditional India.

It's hardly what she expected when she arrived in 1968, a 21-year-old bride who didn't care for Indian food. "I had a vague idea that India existed somewhere in the world with its snakes, elephants, and jungles," she has written of her days at Cambridge University in England, where she met Rajiv.

Politics was never the aim for Gandhi, who became an Indian citizen in 1983. But when Congress officials were desperate for a name to help rebuild the party after her husband's 1991 assassination, Gandhi was thrust into the fray. Slowly, but surely, she has become a presence.

The big question mark was being Italian-born. Even as Gandhi assumed the customs, clothing, and comportment of her adopted land, one political rival called her an "Italian female dog." In February, Gandhi told New Delhi Television that her foreign birth might hurt her with voters, but that she was no outsider. "I never felt they look at me as a foreigner," she said. "Because I am not. I am Indian."

And most voters agreed -- although not all Indians are enthusiastic about the idea of Ghandi heading the government, as New Delhi resident Vinay Bharadaj told a Reuters reporters yesterday. "I don't think Sonia can be a good prime minister. But what can we do? Whether we like it or not -- she will be," Bharadwaj said.

Analysts say the success of Congress was due partly to a desire for change, especially among the country's poor, for whom Gandhi emerged, according to the "Times of India," as a wronged widow and savior. Still other Indian commentators say Gandhi's success has shown how tolerant and open Indians are, despite their deeply held religious beliefs and customs.

In Italy, reaction to Gandhi's political rise was muted. The news failed to make the front page of the website of "La Repubblica," the nation's best-selling daily paper. But some people were pleased. Italy's undersecretary of foreign affairs, Margherita Boniver, quipped: "Hooray! Finally an Italian woman as prime minister, because in my country there's never been a female premier."

Avtar Singh Rana is an Indian-born politician serving, coincidentally, on the city council in Gandhi's small Italian hometown of Orbassano. Rana told RFE/RL that Gandhi's success is in part a result of how well she has adopted to the ways of his homeland. "I had the chance to meet her about two years ago at her house in New Delhi," Rana said. "I can say with pride, since I live in Italy, that her dress and manners were completely Indian. And everything that we talked about -- and naturally, we didn't talk about politics -- was in the Hindi language, which she speaks perfectly."

The Indian elections have been a source of local pride in Orbassano, with Mayor Carlo Marroni expressing "great satisfaction" over the outcome and saying the town will be watching development closely in the days to come. Meanwhile, Rana said there's a new joke around town: "That's the joke here in Orbassano. They like to say that the town may have given Sonia to India, but India has given Orbassano Avtar Singh Rana."