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India's Sonia Gandhi Returns Home From US Medical Treatment

India's ruling Congress party president Sonia Gandhi (file photo)

The powerful head of India’s ruling Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, has returned to New Delhi from the United States, where she was undergoing treatment for an undisclosed medical condition.

Sixty-four-year-old Sonia Gandhi arrived Thursday after spending nearly five weeks in the United States undergoing surgery and treatment.

No details of her illness have been disclosed, and it remains uncertain when she will resume public life.

Gandhi, who heads the Congress Party, is India’s most powerful politician. Although she holds no formal position in the government, she is believed to often guide it on strategic matters.

Bhaskar Rao at New Delhi’s Center for Media Studies says the Congress Party and the government appeared adrift while she was away.

"Absence always reminds one of the power of people or otherwise. That is more so in the case of Sonia Gandhi because in the last one month she has been away, the government has been in trouble in many respects," said Rao

The government has come under fire for mishandling a massive anti-corruption movement led by a social activist.

Nationwide protests erupted last month after it acted tough and briefly arrested activist Anna Hazare. Following a 13-day hunger strike by Hazare, the government finally conceded to his demand to consider tough anti-corruption legislation. But it lost considerable support as it failed to gauge the deep public anger with public graft in India.

Several commentators say the government might have coped better with the political crisis had Sonia Gandhi been home. Gandhi, the widow of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, has led the Congress Party to victory twice and gained a reputation for deft handling of sensitive issues.
Rao says her illness has exposed the lack of a second rung of leadership in the Congress Party.

"Her absence also brought out how Congress Party is one-person centered, and that is Sonia Gandhi, and how powerful she has been. There is no one else to raise to that kind of level," said Rao.

Rahul Gandhi, a lawmaker and son of India's ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi. (file photo)
Rahul Gandhi, a lawmaker and son of India's ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi. (file photo)
While Sonia Gandhi was away, her son, Rahul Gandhi, was expected to play a more prominent role in national politics. It is widely believed that he will become prime minister if the Congress Party is returned to power, and Sonia Gandhi had named him a member of a joint committee handling party affairs.

However, Rahul Gandhi adopted a low profile during his mother's absence and critics say he failed to make a mark politically during the anti-corruption protests.