By Matthias Williams
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - As the Italian-born homemaker, mother-of-two and wife of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, few would have thought Sonia Gandhi would ever rise to become the most powerful figure in the world's largest democracy.
"I don't like being in the limelight. It is not something extraordinary. It is just my habit," Gandhi told an Indian magazine in 1985 in a rare interview, professing that "my upbringing is such that I feel my husband is superior to me and his mother is even more superior."
The party she leads, Congress, on Friday announced that the 64-year-old Gandhi underwent surgery abroad for an undisclosed medical condition, potentially hastening the rise of her son Rahul as the country's next prime minister.
The daughter of a Turin builder, Gandhi has become the torchbearer for the Gandhi-Nehru family, one of the longest lasting political dynasties in the world, ruling India for much of its independent history since 1947.
Widow of one slain prime minister and daughter-in-law of another, she governs India in an unlikely partnership with the economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the man she handpicked to lead after reviving her party's flagging fortunes in 2004.
Singh is seen largely as a figurehead, while Gandhi steers policy and forges alliances behind the scenes. Foreign presidents and prime ministers make Gandhi's leafy bungalow in the Indian capital a must-visit. Many sitting ministers and party allies owe their jobs to her, not to Singh.
A formidable campaigner, she is seen as the architect of social welfare schemes guaranteeing work to hundreds of millions of Indians living in dire poverty, a policy which has helped keep Singh in power for two consecutive terms.
FOREIGN DOLL AND SPAGHETTI ENGLISH
Few would have predicted such a destiny for her when she married into India's first family in the late 1960s.
As the wife of Rajiv Gandhi, she shied away from the limelight and focused her energies on being a good Indian housewife, although she did campaign for the Gandhi family, handing out blankets and medicines on the stump in villages.
Once seen as a potential national security risk because of her foreign birth, Sonia Gandhi, born Sonia Maino, became an Indian citizen in 1983. She began wearing her trademark elegant saris, fasted once a week and cooked pasta for her family.
She initially discouraged Rajiv, a trained pilot whom she met while learning English and waitressing in Cambridge, from entering the family business of politics, after his brother died in a plane crash in 1980.
"I fought like a tigress -- for him, for us and our children, for the life we had made together, his flying which he loved, our uncomplicated, easy friendships, and, above all, for our freedom," she wrote in a book on her husband.
"I was angry and resentful toward a system which, as I saw it, demanded him as a sacrificial lamb. It would crush him and destroy him - of that I was absolutely certain."
It was Sonia who cradled the dying Indira Gandhi in her arms after she was shot by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, and who stood by her husband after his government become embroiled in a corruption scandal over arms sales in the late 1980s.
She was thrust into the thick of the country's dog-eat-dog politics after Rajiv's assassination at the hands of Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in 1991, but at first refused to accept entreaties from supporters to take over the reins.
Panned as a "foreign doll" who spoke accented Hindi and "spaghetti English," pundits and opposition parties initially laughed off chances that Gandhi could seize back power from the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. She projected herself as the country's "daughter-in-law."
A BJP leader, Sushma Swaraj, once famously declared she would shave her head if Gandhi became prime minister. Having swept Congress back to power seven years ago, such jibes led Gandhi to declare to dismayed supporters: "I must humbly decline this post ... it is my inner voice, my conscience."
Such is her influence that Forbes magazine ranked her the world's 9th most powerful person. Congress fiercely protects her image and public criticism of her is rare, though a leaked U.S. embassy cable on the Wikileaks website said of her:
"Mrs Gandhi never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity."
The India she helps to lead is not the economic backwater it once was before Singh's economic reforms 20 years ago unleashed years of economic boom and helped fund the pro-poor policies that have kept Congress in power.
To many loyalists, the rise to the top of her son Rahul is seen as a matter of when, not if.
"Sonia Gandhi gives Congress keys to Rahul" was the headline of the Indian Express newspaper on Friday, after she appointed Rahul as one of quartet of close advisers to govern in her absence.
(Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Jonathan Thatcher)