SAKOLI, India (Reuters) - A large crowd in this dusty western Indian village waited for hours in the scorching sun, many standing on rooftops and walls just for a glimpse of Sonia Gandhi at an election rally.
Gandhi, the Italian-born head of the ruling Congress party, has come a long way since the once reclusive widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi plunged into politics more than a decade ago, after a stunning defeat for a party that had dominated the country’s political landscape for decades.
Today at 62, Gandhi is easily the most powerful political leader in the country, credited with energizing the party with her tireless campaigning that led to the defeat of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2004.
Criss-crossing the country in a chopper, sometimes speaking at three or four rallies a day before the general election that gets underway this week, Sonia is the key face of the center-left Congress party as it seeks to come back to power.
“Sonia’s the star, the one that the crowds come to see,” said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan. “She’s also the real power in Congress, she makes the rules.”
Wearing caps and scarves in the saffron, green and white colors of Congress, men and women, some with children balanced on their hip, break into applause as Gandhi rises to speak.
“We don’t want communal forces to rule the country,” she said at the rally in Sakoli in western Maharashtra state, her soft-pitched voice rising as she criticized the BJP.
“Ours is an ideological fight for nation building, which takes sacrifice and time. And when the day comes, I hope you will take our side,” said Gandhi, speaking in slightly accented but fluent Hindi.
Gandhi, once called the “Sphinx” for her inscrutable image, tearfully walked away from the prime minister’s job following her party’s surprise victory in 2004.
But her political influence has not waned.
Once voted the world’s sixth most powerful woman by Forbes, Gandhi helped craft two of the Congress-led government’s most important policies: a flagship rural jobs scheme and a loan waiver for farmers, underlining her left-of-center stance.
Many had written off Gandhi -- who married into India’s first family, the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty -- and the Congress party before the 2004 election.
But Gandhi, who took over the reins of the party’s campaign then, managed to turn around the political fortunes of Congress.
“We only came to see Soniaji,” said Subha Ikaar, who travelled 40 km (25 miles) with friends to attend the rally.
“She is the center of the Congress party, our leader. We will do whatever she asks of us,” she said.
The Congress party has largely ruled India since its independence in 1947, when Jawaharlal Nehru became the country’s first prime minister. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, followed in his footsteps.
Sonia Gandhi, raised in a traditional Roman Catholic household near Turin, took over the reins of the party after her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi, was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991.
Sonia and son Rahul, 38, now lead the Congress campaign, both peppering their speeches with emotional references to the family.
With her graying hair and elegant cotton sarees, Sonia is seen as a natural successor to Indira, the people in her constituency of Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh state fondly calling her “bahu,” or daughter-in-law.
“She has matured as a leader: her political acumen is sharper, she knows how to handle her party, her allies,” said Sanjay Kumar, a senior fellow at the Center for Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.