Until last month Sonia Gandhi, the enigmatic, Italian-born chief of India's main opposition Congress party, always skirted the issue of whether her foreign origin makes her a suitable candidate for the country's top job of prime minister. Since she took to active politics five years ago, it seemed enough for Gandhi to lay claim to the mantle of national leadership by proclaiming her family connections. She married into the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has dominated Indian politics for most of the past century. She is the widow of slain prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, another assassinated premier. Her husband's grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was independent India's first prime minister, while his great-grandfather, Motilal Nehru, was a Congress stalwart. Nowhere in the modern world has a single family held sway for so long over a nation's politics. Gandhi family watchers were therefore taken aback when the sari-clad Sonia Gandhi suddenly picked up the gauntlet flung at her by Hindu nationalists regarding her foreign origin. 'Those who question my patriotism should first point out when - ever since I became Indira Gandhi's daughter-in-law - have I failed to conform to Indian traditions?' she asked at a recent election rally in the western state of Rajasthan, one of four provinces holding crucial state assembly elections early next month. Not many at the meeting were aware that her sudden combativeness about her 'Indianness' was the result of advice from her 33-year-old daughter Priyanka Gandhi. The younger Gandhi has yet to enter active politics. But few doubt that when she does, she will ensure that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty retains its political significance for a record fifth generation. Married to a businessman and the mother of two small children, Priyanka's only current political commitment is to manage her mother's parliamentary constituency. She is otherwise busy bringing up her three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter, designing costume jewellery for her husband's export business, doing social work and attending fashionable parties. But even though Priyanka is not campaigning for the upcoming state elections, wherever her mother goes party workers raise the same cry: 'Bring Priyanka into politics!' 'Priyanka will serve as an inspiration for youngsters and will strengthen the party's winning chances,' said one Rajasthan Congress leader. 'Every district in the state wants her to campaign.' Her mother's stock response to such a demand is that Priyanka can make her own decisions. Unlike her brother Rahul, who runs a computer networking business and was last in the news for romancing a Columbian girl, Priyanka seems committed to eventually take up the family's hoary political legacy. But sources insist this will not happen until her children are old enough to fend for themselves. Although India's poor appear to have no problem with Sonia Gandhi's Italian birth, the country's large middle class is divided, with a significant section unable to accept the idea of a foreign-born woman ruling India. But Priyanka has no such handicap. Moreover, unlike her mother, she is fluent in Hindi. She is also naturally combative. 'Priyanka reminds people most of her grandmother Indira Gandhi,' said a senior Congress leader. 'She has the same feisty quality and could easily turn out to be as charismatic a leader.' Congress workers in Rajasthan are clearly too impatient to wait for the day when Priyanka becomes a fully-fledged politician. So even if she isn't campaigning yet, her photograph is the most popular election icon in the state. 'Everyone who comes to us wants things on Priyanka,' said a shopkeeper dealing in Congress election material. 'Caps, banners, flags and posters with her pictures are selling very well, even better than those with Sonia Gandhi.' (Party insiders say that the possibility that Priyanka may eclipse her mother if she enters politics could be another reason why she wants to bide her time.) Next month's state elections - in four states, including Rajasthan - are critical for the Congress and the Gandhi family. The party is in power in all four, and the main electoral challenge is from the powerful Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). If Congress emerges triumphant, its chances in next year's national elections, and the prospect of Sonia Gandhi becoming prime minister, will get a huge boost. The BJP is hoping Sonia's foreign origin will alienate urban voters. But the Congress leader last week received support from an unexpected quarter. Former prime minister V. P Singh, once an arch rival of the Gandhi family, sprang to her defence. 'Her past may be foreign, but her present and future are Indian, as are her children,' he declared. But as the clamour for Priyanka in Rajasthan shows, India can bank on one more generation of the Gandhi family to add drama and colour to its election campaigns.