Sonia Gandhi wins place in history books

03:09AM Sun 5 Sep, 2010

NEW DELHI - Italian-born Sonia Gandhi was elected Friday for a record fourth term as president of India's ruling Congress party, cementing her role as the country's political power broker.

Gandhi, widow of assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and seen as India's most powerful politician, was elected unopposed for the top Congress job to wild cheers from party supporters who set off crackers in celebration.

"It's a great responsibility and I thank all Congress workers. Whether we are in power or not we should always work for the oppressed," she said in a speech after her win, which made her the longest-serving party chief.

Gandhi holds great sway within the Congress party. She is credited with shaping its welfare policies and is regarded as a champion of the poor as India undergoes rapid economic growth.

"She is a socialist at heart," Indian political commentator Parsa Venkateshwar Rao told AFP.

Gandhi also crafted the strategies which gave Congress back-to-back general election victories, ending years in the political wilderness.

Gandhi, 63, whose dark brown hair only now shows streaks of grey, took over the party's reins when it faced "drift and despondency," said one party leader.

She arrived in India as the shy bride of Rajiv Gandhi in her early 20s, and was transformed into a sari-clad Indian who now speaks fluent Hindi.

Her years in the Gandhi household, when her strong-willed autocratic mother-in-law Indira - slain in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards - was premier, gave her an intimate insight into India's turbulent politics.

She took charge of the Congress party as its president in 1998, becoming the fifth member of the powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to serve as its chief.

Congress's fortunes were on the slide when party workers implored Sonia Gandhi to take the helm.

"Her great strength is that she kept the party intact," said Rao.

Gandhi - who has described herself as "a reluctant politician" - rebuilt the party, leading it to victory in the 2004 general elections.

"There was a lot of trial and error but she learnt from her mistakes and it paid off," Rasheed Kidwai, author of a biography of Sonia Gandhi, told AFP.

Gandhi handed the prime minister's job to the current incumbent Manmohan Singh, worried about a political backlash against her because of her foreign origins.

She now is widely thought to be preparing the way for her son Rahul, 40, to become the country's next leader, replacing 77-year-old Singh.

Rahul, who took a key role in last year's election campaign, has been seeking to build a reputation as a democratic reformer and, like his mother, a defender of the poor.

The opposition often mocked Sonia Gandhi over her foreign birth, calling her a "foreign doll".

But Gandhi, who is an Indian citizen, has said while her foreign origins might rile some, in the country's rural heartland - especially among the poor - she is not an outsider.

"I never felt they look at me as a foreigner," she said. "Because I am not, I am an Indian."