The leader of India's Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, has surprised the country by bringing her party and its allies within striking distance of forming the next government. Anjana Pasricha reports on the Italian-born woman who married into of one of the world's most famous political dynasties, and now has become India's prime political mover.

Six years ago, the reclusive widow of India's former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, started out as a reluctant politician.

Sonia Gandhi married into India's first political family in 1968. Her husband was the grandson of the country's first prime minister and son of its fourth. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has governed India for more than 40 of its 56 years of independence.

But she always stayed aloof from public life. For years after her husband's assassination in 1991, she resisted Congress Party efforts to draw her into politics. The party long has regarded a Gandhi name as its best bet for pulling in votes.

But in 1998, Mrs. Gandhi took charge of the party when its political fortunes were foundering, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was riding a wave of popularity.

Sonia Gandhi, now 57-years-old, says it was the threat to the secular ideals championed by the Congress Party that forced her to jump into politics. Before this year's elections she expressed her concern.

"These elections I believe present to the people of India a choice between two competing visions of nationalism," she said. "The Congress vision is that of an open-minded, all-inclusive secular nationalism. The BJP vision is that of a narrow, bigoted and parochial nationalism."

Her political career has not been a smooth ride. In the parliamentary election in 1999, she led her party to its worst-ever defeat.

At the time, many analysts wrote off Sonia Gandhi as a political novice, handicapped by her lack of experience and her Italian origins, which opponents say make her unacceptable to lead the country.

But Mrs. Gandhi was not deterred. She took over as the country's opposition leader, and learned to speak Hindi - the language of the masses in northern India.

Shrugging aside her party's defeat and the continued attacks on her foreign birth, Mrs. Gandhi concentrated on reviving the Congress Party.

"In recent months, she led a grueling campaign, addressing hundreds of campaign gatherings throughout the vast Indian countryside," said Sonia Gandhi. "Her children joined her, and her son Rahul won his own seat in Parliament."

Hiranmay Karlekar, editor of the Pioneer newspaper, says Mrs. Gandhi contributed significantly to the unexpected upturn in her party's fortunes.

"She has worked very hard, she has campaigned very hard," he said. "She has in many cases chosen the right people to lead the party. Certainly she has played a very significant role."

Originally from a small village near the city of Turin in Italy, Sonia Gandhi met Rajiv Gandhi when she was a language student in Britain. She came to India as a bride at the age of 21, and has stayed since then, eventually becoming a citizen.