Virtually fighting a single-handed battle to end the eight-year power drought of her party, Sonia Gandhi nee Maino, the Italian-born President of Congress, has emerged with flying colours in an election that was literally seen as a referendum on her foreign origin.
Leading the Congress in a relentless political campaign that saw virulent personal attacks on her ranging from her antecedents to her heavily accented speeches, Gandhi braved it all as she criss-crossed the country to strike a cord with the aam aadmi (common man) who threw in his lot behind her.
From bahu to boss
In a telling rebuttal of a vilified campaign, the "reader-leader" finally silenced her sceptics by sewing a formidable alliance with regional parties to restore the Congress, as the single-largest party in the 543-strong house from its lower ever tally of 114 and dislodge the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance.
From a 'shy-Indian bahu' who vehemently guarded her privacy after her wedding into India's most popular family in 1968, to the sari-clad lady with brisk walk reminiscent of her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, Sonia has showed that it's the bread and butter issues that ultimately gel with the voter.
"The farmers are the backbone of the economy and they must be the overriding concern of any government," she said elaborating on her vision as she attacked the NDA on issues of employment, corruption and secularism.
The early years
It has not been a cakewalk for the 58-year old Congress President who "detested" politics and is stated to have said that she'd rather have her children beg than let her husband join politics.
In the six years that she led Congress after refusing to head the party following Rajiv Gandhi's assassination on May 21, 1991, Sonia has managed to offset the many odds against her by striking a direct rapport with the Leftist leaders, who are now in a position to lend stability to a Congress-led combine without having to depend on small regional players.
Whether she heads the government or not, Sonia has once again proved that in the 119-year old party, bogged by factionalism, she is the only unifying force and that the charisma of Nehru-Gandhi family still works.
Sceptics notwithstanding, her active association with the political events both during Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi's leadership should now stand her in good stead.
Young party leaders speak favourably about her: "Her style involves a lot of hard work. She is a hard task master," a senior leader said.
"She likes people to do their homework before presenting propositions whatever their nature may be and then to deal with them in a discreet, sensible and mature manner. It is a style that is professional and organised," he added.
As she makes many a stalwart bite the dust in the "resurgent Congress" wave and for all the adverse remarks the party has invited for making her its leader, Sonia interestingly is not the first foreign-born President of the party. A O Hume and Dr Annie Besant had led the party in pre-Independence days.
She is also the fifth woman to lead the party, her predecessors being Dr Besant, Dr Sarojini Naidu, Nellie Sengupta and Indira Gandhi.
From Italy to India
Born on December 9, 1946 near Turin to a working class family, Sonia's connection with India developed when she first met Rajiv Gandhi at a language school in Cambridge in 1965.
They married in 1968, after which Sonia made India her home, while Rajiv too kept out of political limelight till the death of his younger brother Sanjay Gandhi in 1980.
Sonia, in fact, was seldom seen in public, till the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi after which her husband became the prime minister.
She acquired Indian citizenship in 1983 and was not even the primary member of Congress when she was first offered the post of Congress President in 1991. It was not until 1997 that she became a primary member of the party and thereafter in less than a year she was catapulted to the top post to lead a rather fledgling party.
The coming of age as a politician
Then a greenhorn to Indian politics, she took the first plunge when she campaigned for the party in 1998. She was elected to Parliament from Amethi, Rajiv Gandhi's seat, and Bellary in Karnataka. She then became leader of the Opposition in the hung Lok Sabha.
In the spring of 1999, she came very close to becoming the prime minister after the 13-month-old Vajpayee government was defeated by a single vote.
The Congress bid to form an alternative government suffered a setback on April 23, when the Samajwadi Party, Revolutionary Socialist Party and Forward Bloc refused to support a Congress minority government.
The then President K R Narayanan gave Gandhi more time to enlist the support of estranged but like-minded allies. However, she could only submit a list of 233 MPs that fell short by 39 to make up for the requisite number of 272.
In 1999, she was re-elected to Parliament from Amethi, although the party's tally came down to its lowest of 114.
In the intervening years, Gandhi presided over Congress' electoral successes in several states.
Prominent among the states where the Congress is in power are Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Assam and Karnataka (which now has a hung asembly). The party is also part of the ruling coalition in Jammu and Kashmir.
Although Gandhi still reads out her speeches, which in earlier days mostly harped on the verge of eliciting sympathy from the audience citing the sacrifices of her family, she has now distinctly shifted to attacking her opponents on their policies and rebutting their charges point-by-point be it the India-shining campaign or on the performance front.
On her foreign origin issue she is reported to have said, "India embraced me and I embraced India... I will be an Indian as long as I breathe."
Maintaining that she had stepped out to "make the Congress Party strong again," she also strikes an immediate rapport with her audience on terrorism saying, "The forces of terrorism have not only taken the lives of Mahatma Gandhi and two Prime Ministers (Indira and Rajiv) but also hundreds of people. This must not continue."
While complimenting her for organising the Congress, party insiders point out that Gandhi has tried in her own way to promote women within the party by giving them 33 per cent representation in the organisational set-up of the Congress.
Spiralling prices, corruption and disillusionment with BJP might have brought Congress back to the centrestage. However, Gandhi as the party's head would have to keep the belts tightened as it is these very issues that would be put to test after five years.
She would be judged solely on the merits of her policies, programmes and governance, and certainly not on the benchmark of her being a naturalised Indian -- Elections 2004 have at least given a verdict on this.