New Delhi: Congress president Sonia Gandhi will make her first appearance at a key meeting on Thursday since going to the United States more than a month ago for undisclosed surgery, an absence which left the government rudderless.
The 64-year-old’s absence for more than a month coincided with a plunge in popularity for the centre-left party and the biggest national protests against corruption since the 1970s.
Gandhi was due to attend a meeting of senior Congress party officials to discuss candidates to put forward for the state election in Uttar Pradesh (UP) next year, key to the ruling party’s fortunes as to whether it will be able return to power in national elections in 2014.
Her attendance at the meeting, which is expected to be away from the cameras, comes earlier than many had expected, possibly in reaction to growing concerns about who runs India.
“Today there is UP central election committee meeting at 10 Janpath. So we are all expecting her to attend,” information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni told reporters.
A still image of Sonia sitting in a car was shown on broadcaster CNN-IBN on Thursday, the first images of her since she slipped out of the country in early August for surgery.
Congress party insiders have told Reuters that they are thrilled at the return of Sonia Gandhi but privately worry about the lack of direction in the party as well as failure by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to manage the day-to-day tasks of the coalition government.
Sonia’s son Rahul Gandhi, who is currently head of the Congress party’s youth organisation, is being groomed to take over from his mother, most likely in conjunction with national elections in 2014.
His performance during his mother’s absence and lack of hands-on approach during the mounting protests led by activist Anna Hazare have raised concerns about whether he is able to lead the party.
Singh’s popularity also has taken a severe beating for failing to address rampant corruption.
One of his ministers was thrown in jail on charges of corruption and several Congress party members have been sent to jail as well over graft, pending trial.
Singh is widely respected for ushering in economic reforms that brought fast growth to Asia’s third largest economy, but the government has lurched from crisis to crisis since he returned for a second term as prime minister after the 2009 elections.
Gandhi’s illness has added an image of a rudderless leadership.
The party’s performance in next year’s Uttar Pradesh state elections being discussed on Thursday will be a barometer of the Gandhi’s chances of keeping grip on power in the nation of 1.2 billion. It is the largest state in the country.
The coalition government is still reeling from scandals over alleged massive graft in the awarding of telecoms licenses and during the build-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games, along with a parliamentary logjam that has stalled economic reforms.
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, but criticism is mounting over the way the country is run.