After devastating state election, many are questioning the chances of Sonia Gandhi leading Congress to victory The worst thing to emerge for Sonia Gandhi from her Congress party's resounding defeat in three out of five provincial elections last week was the acquisition of yet another nickname - femme fatality. Her opponents' repertoire already includes 'the foreign vegetable', the 'Dumb Doll from Turin' and the 'Reader' (rather than the 'Leader' because of her seeming inability to speak without a script). The results are a great blow for Ms Gandhi, the Congress party president, casting doubt on her qualifications to grab victory in next year's general election. The party is so hopelessly infatuated with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that none of her colleagues appears daring enough to challenge her leadership. But rumblings will undoubtedly be heard about the lack of power her influence has brought the party. Ms Gandhi looked stunned at the result, but seemed in no mood to take responsibility for it. She did admit, however, that Congress would have to 'pull up its socks'. Her colleagues were typically quick to deflect criticism away from her, saying the results were not a reflection of her leadership. But analysts point out that Ms Gandhi is in serious trouble and cannot be absolved of responsibility. She personally campaigned aggressively in the state of Rajasthan, where her party was brutally trounced. It was also defeated in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. 'The Congress can't say it was a failure of the local leadership. It was a failure of the national leadership too,' analyst Mahesh Rangarajan said. 'The results are terrible and pose a very grave crisis for the Congress. If you look at the finer details of the results, it's clear that it was demolished in all its traditional bastions in all three states.' These elections were the most crucial test of Ms Gandhi's leadership since she became party president five years ago, a legacy she inherited as a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, widow of murdered prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi. Soon after taking over, she led the party to its worst ever performance in the 1999 general election. At that time, the excuse trotted out was that she was a political novice and needed more time to rejuvenate the party. Now, five years later, those excuses are unconvincing. Mr Rangarajan said her strategy for coming back to power next year was to keep winning provincial elections one by one. As her party came to rule large parts of India at the state level, so the thinking went, the momentum would eventually propel it to power in New Delhi. 'That strategy is in tatters. What this election reveals is that the party just hasn't come to grips with some fundamental changes in Indian politics. It's completely at sea,' he said. Inevitably, her background will come back to haunt her. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will exploit the issue to the hilt, knowing the urban middle class shudders at the idea of a nation of more than a billion Indians being led by an Italian-born woman with wobbly Hindi and Italian-accented English. Ms Gandhi's origins are also a big stumbling block for the Congress now that India is in an era of coalition politics, with neither the BJP nor the Congress capable of winning a general election on their own. Obtaining a majority means forging alliances with the small, regional parties in the provinces. This hobbles the Congress enormously because the prospect of Sonia Gandhi as prime minister makes regional leaders splutter with patriotic indignation. Faced with this, many of them would rather ally with the BJP. Given that the BJP defeated the Congress in three important states, even fewer regional leaders will be enthusiastic about joining Ms Gandhi now she and her party are seen as losers. In fact, she will be seen as a double liability. It will no longer just be the issue of her foreign birth that presents a problem for potential allies. Her leadership will also come under the spotlight. 'Her inexperience and personality will come under attack. She has absolutely no feel for politics, no political instincts, no sense of what's happening on the ground. She isn't a political animal. She cannot make her own judgments so she has to rely on advisers. That's a huge handicap,' said analyst Yogendra Yadav, of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Columnist Neerja Chowdhury said: 'With this disastrous result, Sonia will come under massive pressure to bring in her daughter Priyanka. 'The party can't risk losing another general election. Priyanka is known inside the party as its 'ultimate weapon' for coming back to power. But why wait till you lose another general election before you use this weapon?' Congress politicians will clamour for the 33-year-old Priyanka - a fifth generation member of the clan - to be brought in to galvanise the party and win votes. She possesses everything her mother is seen as lacking - charisma, charm, a popular touch, an easy smile and the ability to pull in the crowds and establish an instant rapport. Their biggest fear is that if they do not wield the 'ultimate weapon' soon - particularly as the BJP might hold an early election to cash in on its present popularity - they might sink into political oblivion.