UPDATE 2-India's Gandhi returns to government in crisis

Thu Sep 8, 2011 11:48am IST

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By Krittivas Mukherjee

NEW DELHI, Sept 8 (Reuters) - Sonia Gandhi, the head of India's ruling Congress party, returned home on Thursday after a month of medical treatment in the United States which left the government rudderless to deal with the biggest protests in decades.

"She came back this morning and she is fine," Congress party spokesman Janadhan Dwivedi told Reuters.

The absence of the 64-year-old, India's most powerful politician who runs the country behind the scenes, has caused serious problems for the coalition government, accused of mishandling the anti-corruption protests and worsening ties with parliamentary allies.

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 bringing India's economic growth closer to double-digits.

Concern remains whether the Italian-born Gandhi will be well enough to take the reins of a divided party and a drifting coalition government sagging in opinion polls.

"She will take advice from the doctors now," Dwivedi said.

Asked when Gandhi could resume her public life, he said: "How can you talk about something like that now? It will depend on doctors. All I can say is that she is fine."

Broadcaster CNN IBN, citing party sources, said she may need another month to recover.

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

CONCERN ABOUT SON'S LEADERSHIP

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 rudderless during anti-graft protests led by 74-year-old activist Anna Hazare, who forced the prime minister to back down and agree to tougher anti-corruption legislation.

The government was sharply criticised for failing to head off a bomb attack at the capital's High Court on Wednesday which killed 12 people. The court has no CCTV cameras and handheld scanners were not working on the day of the attack.

A low-intensity bomb exploded at the same court in May.

Rahul, who was under fire for failing to take leadership during his mother's absence, and Prime Minister Singh were heckled when they visited blast victims at a Delhi hospital.

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

The Congress party 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 presented to parliament on Wednesday a reform to replace a century-old land acquisition law that seeks to placate a rural voter base worried it is being short-changed in the country's rush into modernisation.

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 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.

She 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. (Writing by Paul de Bendern; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)

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