Sonia Gandhi to return soon

NEW DELHI Tue Sep 6, 2011 3:22pm IST

Chief of India's ruling Congress Party Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi November 2, 2010. REUTERS/B Mathur/Files

Chief of India's ruling Congress Party Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi November 2, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/B Mathur/Files

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Sonia Gandhi, the head of India's ruling Congress party, is expected home soon after surgery in the United States, providing welcome news for a government accused of mishandling the biggest protests in decades and worsening ties with parliamentary allies.

Indian media said Gandhi, 64, India's most powerful politician who has been absent for a month with an undisclosed illness, could be back in Delhi by Tuesday night. The Congress party denied this.

"We can say she is coming back soon," spokesman Janardhan Dwivedi told Reuters.

Gandhi's illness added to an already long list of problems besieging Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has fallen behind schedule with a reform agenda he himself considers vital to bring India's economic growth closer to double-digits.

Broadcaster NDTV, citing Congress party sources, said the Italian-born Gandhi was expected to return to the capital on Tuesday, but it was not clear when she would return to work.

The Times of India, without citing any sources, said: "She is likely to need at least another couple of months for a full recovery."

The party has declined to comment on the nature of her illness. However, several media outlets have said she was treated for cancer at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

SCION RAHUL STEPS UP

After leaving for surgery, Gandhi promoted her son Rahul, still seen as inexperienced, to help manage the party in her absence. He is widely expected to be the next prime minister if the Congress party returns to power in 2014 elections.

The government looked indecisive during recent anti-corruption protests led by 74-year-old activist Anna Hazare who forced the prime minister to back down and agree to tougher anti-corruption legislation.

Recent opinion polls show support for the centre-left Congress party sharply falling behind the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Congress is still expected to hobble along until 2014 elections as the opposition feels a snap election will not yet be an automatic return to power.

In an attempt to regain the political initiative, the government plans to present to parliament this week a reform to India's century-old land acquisition laws, aimed at streamlining factory and home-building.

The Gandhi family, descended from India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, enjoys a status similar to royalty in the country of 1.2 billion. They are not related to independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, a close ally of Nehru.

Out of respect, normally clamorous 24-hour news stations have been almost silent on Sonia Gandhi's condition or what her absence meant for running the world's largest democracy.

India's main political parties have also largely shied away from commenting on Sonia's absence.

Sonia was married to Rajiv Gandhi, Nehru's grandson and a former prime minister, who was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991 while campaigning for elections.

His mother, Indira Gandhi, was also prime minister when she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.

Sonia Gandhi is seen as the main driver for massive welfare and back-to-work schemes for the rural poor, a counterbalance to Singh's more reform minded agenda.

Often seen as the power behind the throne, after driving Congress to election victory in 2009 but declining to become prime minister, critics say Gandhi has been an ineffective leader who failed to halt corruption on her watch.

For over a year, the government has been on the defensive over graft, particularly charges former Telecoms Minister Andimuthu Raja accepted bribes to favour some firms when the sought lucrative 2G mobile phone licences.

Raja, who is now in jail pending trial, is a member of a party in coalition with Gandhi's Congress party.

On Monday, federal police arrested a powerful mining tycoon linked to the opposition BJP in a move the government hopes will show it is getting tough on corruption. The arrest also weakens the BJP's attacks on the government over graft.

(Additional reporting by Manoj Kumar, and Annie Banerji; Editing by Paul de Bendern and Nick Macfie)

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