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Will She, Won't She? India's Silent Enigma

SHE holds no government position, nor does she head a political party. She never speaks to the press and only rarely utters a public comment. Yet Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is arguably the most powerful person in India.

The address of her heavily guarded bungalow in New Delhi is better known as the prime minister's. Who she meets with -- and for how long -- is the focus of endless speculation. ''Sonia Gandhi has shown great skill in acquiring an aura normally reserved for royalty in other countries,'' says Ajoy Bose, of the Pioneer newspaper.

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Members of the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty have served as prime minister for most of India's 47-year history. Jawaharlal Nehru was the country's first -- and longest serving -- prime minister. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her son Rajiv also held the country's top office.

The Congress Party still holds power today, but it recently lost two key state elections. As a result, some party members have tried to persuade Mrs. Gandhi to take a more active involvement in politics to bolster their chances in next year's national elections. ''They feel the Nehru dynasty will deliver another charismatic leader,'' says Ashis Nandy of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.

Gandhi, however, insists she has no political aspirations. Shortly after her husband's assassination by a suicide bomber in 1991, she was offered the party presidency but turned it down. And neither of her two children, Rahul and Priyanka, have indicated any desire to enter politics.

Still, she continues to wield enormous influence, party officials say. She meets regularly with top Congress leaders, among them Arjun Singh, a dissident who has openly challenged Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. ''The Gandhi name still carries enormous weight and no leader can afford to ignore Sonia,'' says one official.

Her political views, however, remain a mystery, as she never discloses the content of these meetings. Despite her silence (or perhaps because of it), interest in Gandhi has never been greater. Like a kind of political Rorschach test, everybody here reads something into her silence.

Gandhi is immensely popular despite two political handicaps: She is a woman in a largely patriarchal country; and she is a foreigner in a country wary of outside influences. Respect for the Nehru-Gandhi family, however, is so widespread here that ''the kinship link seems to override everything else,'' says Sheena Jain, a professor at New Delhi's Islamia University.

Gandhi's current popularity, some observers say, highlights a leadership vacuum in the Congress Party. Mr. Rao is seen as a competent but uninspiring leader who lacks the charisma of the Gandhi clan. At one party rallly last year, Rao's speech was drowned by chants of ''Sonia! Sonia!''

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Although Gandhi meets regularly with Rao, their relations have been strained lately. Gandhi is reportedly upset with Rao's handling of the investigation into her husband's assassination.

Gandhi has consistently refused press interviews. Her silence, however, hasn't prevented India's newspapers and magazines from devoting a lot of newsprint to her. A naturalized Indian citizen, she has acquired some traits of her adopted home. She speaks good Hindi (the national language) and usually wears a traditional sari.

Some members of India's opposition parties, however, have voiced concerns about any political aspirations she might have. ''India has no shortage of leaders. We don't need to import leaders from foreign soils,'' says Sushma Swaraj, of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

Meanwhile, the Congress faces another test in a series of ongoing state elections. Exit polls indicate the party could lose power in two more key states. Some observers question the wisdom of trying to draw Gandhi into the political fray. Says Mr. Bose, ''It would be naive to assume that the novelty of the Sonia factor alone could retrieve the party's position.''

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