NEW DELHI Sonia Gandhi, leader of India's ruling Congress party, returned home on Thursday after more than a month of medical treatment in the United States which had left the government rudderless to deal with the biggest protests in decades.
The absence of the powerful 64-year-old, who runs the country from behind the scenes, has caused serious problems for the coalition government, accused of mishandling the anti-corruption protests and facing challenges from the opposition that have frequently halted parliament proceedings.
"She came back this morning and she is fine," Congress party spokesman Janardan Dwivedi told Reuters.
Gandhi was believed to have exited an aircraft with her daughter away from the media glare. No images have been published of her since she left for the United States five weeks ago for surgery for an undisclosed illness.
Her illness added to an already long list of problems besieging Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has fallen behind schedule with a reform agenda he himself considers vital to bringing India's economic growth closer to double-digits.
Congress party officials hope her return will lift morale in the centre-left party, but analysts point out that her absence did not affect day-to-day running of India.
"Sonia was never running it on daily basis. She has a set of advisers running the party, they are all there. If Sonia was around during the Anna Hazare issue I don't think it would have been handled differently," Sanjaya Baru, editor of newspaper Business Standard and Singh's media adviser from 2004 to 2008.
The recent protests led by 74-year-old activist Hazare forced the prime minister to back down and agree to tougher anti-corruption legislation.
A PARTY, GOVERNMENT ADRIFT
Concern remains whether the Italian-born Gandhi will be well enough to take the reins of her divided party and a drifting coalition government sagging in opinion polls.
"She will take advice from the doctors now," Dwivedi said.
Asked when Gandhi could resume her public life, he said: "How can you talk about something like that now? It will depend on doctors. All I can say is that she is fine."
Broadcaster CNN-IBN, citing party sources, said she may need another month to recover.
The Congress party has declined to comment on the nature of her illness. But several media outlets have said she was treated for cancer at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York.
After leaving for surgery, Gandhi promoted her politically inexperienced son Rahul to help manage the party in her absence. He is widely expected to be the next prime minister if the Congress party returns to power in 2014 elections.
Rahul was sharply criticised for his handling of the protests in August, largely remaining out of view and not convening any meetings with the officials Sonia had appointed, along with him, to run her affairs in her absence.
The government was also sharply criticised for failing to head off a bomb attack at the capital's High Court on Wednesday which killed 12 people. The court has no CCTV cameras and handheld scanners were not working on the day of the attack.
A low-intensity bomb exploded at the same court in May.
Rahul and Prime Minister Singh were heckled when they visited blast victims at a Delhi hospital.
Recent opinion polls show support for the centre-left Congress party sharply falling behind the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Congress party is still expected to hobble along until 2014 elections as the opposition feels a snap election will not yet be an automatic return to power.
In an attempt to regain the political initiative, the government presented to parliament on Wednesday a reform to replace a century-old land acquisition law that seeks to placate a rural voter base worried it is being short-changed in the country's rush into modernisation.
The Gandhi family, descended from India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, enjoys a status similar to royalty in the country of 1.2 billion. They are not related to independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, a close ally of Nehru.
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 her absence.
She was married to Rajiv Gandhi, Nehru's grandson and a former prime minister, who was killed by a suicide bomber in 1991 while campaigning for elections. His mother, Indira Gandhi, was also prime minister when she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984.
(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)