Evoking its past glory in an effort at rebuilding, the Congress party on Saturday picked the Italian-born widow of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi as its new president.

Though Sonia Gandi has next-to-no political experience and has not outlined any particular vision for the country, she is associated with the family that ruled India for 35 of its 50 years of independence, and is thus immensely popular.Party insiders have been pushing for her appointment as Congress president ever since her husband's 1991 assassination. Only recently has she ended her re-clus-ive-ness and agreed to enter politics.

Although her appointment comes in the aftermath of elections that have left the major parties scrambling for a parliamentary majority, it is not expected to change Congress' current standing. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won the most seats in the elections and is likely to get the opportunity to form India's first stable government in several years.

The man Gandhi is to replace, Sitaram Kesri, criticized her appointment, calling it illegal because the vote was conducted in his absence. He refused to step down, but he appears powerless to block the shuffle.

While Kesri made no major tactical errors during his tenure, the party has slumped under his auspices, and the time was seen as right to nudge him aside.

Gandhi was elected by 15 of 17 members of the Congress Working Committee, the core group of party leaders.

Following the announcement, about 100 elated Congress members gathered in front of Gandhi's home, playing songs praising her, waving flags and setting off firecrackers in celebration.

"I will try my best to live up to the expectations of the party," party officials quoted her as saying during a closed-door meeting of the Working Committee Saturday evening.

Gandhi's election is expected to be ratified by the party's supreme body, the 8,000-member All India Congress Committee, on April 4.