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NEW DELHI — Sonia Gandhi once hated politics, certainly the intrigues of Indian affairs.

As an Italian and rank foreigner, she was particularly uncomfortable with the Indian system. In fact, she never wanted to be involved with it, and for many years kept her late husband, Rajiv Gandhi, out of it.

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s brutal assassination by Sikh extremists in the mid-1980s pushed her son, Rajiv, on to the hot seat.

When he met with a violent end as well in the hands of a Sri Lankan suicide bomber during the early 1990s, the Congress Party — which the mother and son had presided over, and which was largely instrumental in guiding the nation from colonial subjugation to freedom in 1947 — was dithering without a leader.

In a way, this was not surprising. Indira Gandhi had wanted precisely that. She effectively destroyed the last traces of federalism in the party, a policy that Sonia has been pursuing as well since she took over as the president of the Congress about two years ago.

Alienated from the grassroots and paying scant regard to democratic norms, Sonia now finds herself threatened by one of the Congress leaders, Jitendra Prasada, who till now was known as her bellboy.

The man, who used to sit by Sonia’s side and press the buzzer to tell speakers that their talk time was over, now plans to fight her despite his defeat in the Nov. 12 Congress presidential election, where he opposed Sonia.

Of course, nobody, not even Prasada’s staunch supporters, believed that he could win the race.

Yet, there was panic in the Sonia camp before the election. Her trusted lieutenant, Ambika Soni, quit two important party posts to campaign for Sonia, and although most of the 9,000-plus Congress Party workers — who form the electoral college for the poll — did not ignore Sonia in the poll (Prasada got just 94 votes), one danger remains.

This tussle between Prasada and Sonia is designed to keep the lady far from India’s prime ministerial chair, should an occasion arise. Leaders like Sharad Pawar and Mulayam Singh Yadav (both one-time defense ministers) have taken a vow, albeit in private, not just to stop Sonia from becoming the prime minister, but also to destroy her. Prasada may well be a pawn in their hands.

Of course, all this becomes pertinent only if the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition in New Delhi collapses. According to one point of view, there is a good chance that this may happen early next year.

In that case, the Prasada-Pawar-Yadav combine can be crucial in checkmating Sonia.

And Sonia is no Indira Gandhi, whose intelligence and cunning few can hope to match.

Besides, Sonia’s understanding of India’s political landscape has been, even in the best of times, poor. There are even serious reservations about her ability to command a party as gigantic and as undisciplined as the Congress, let alone a country as diverse as India.

Worse, she has estranged senior, brighter and respected leaders like Manmohan Singh, Narasimha Rao, and some others, who were largely responsible for the Indian economic reforms movement that began in the early 1990s. She has even forsaken the “Vision of the New India” program that Rajiv formulated, the same project that gave some kind of shape to India’s technology and economic liberalization.

Her only strong point is the Nehru-Gandhi name, which still spells magic. While this lasts, Sonia Gandhi will enjoy the ride, including the one that she has currently taken perched on the shoulder of a small coterie of die-hard loyalists out to ensure that their “queen” vanquishes Prasada.

Once, when Sonia’s mother-in-law was pushed to the precipice, she traveled on a yatra (journey) similar to the one Sonia took before the party election. Indira mouthed a slogan that caught on like wildfire: “They say Indira hatao (remove Indira). I say garibi hatao (remove poverty).” The masses fell for that.

But Sonia is no Indira. Few will dispute this, except her band of yes men.

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