Sonia Gandhi, 65, carries the authority of a political family that, after India won independence from Britain in 1947, drove a vision of democratic socialism to uplift the vast rural masses.
With that came a mind-boggling range of controls that tied the economy down and kept it closed to global markets.
A turning point came in 1991 when a slump in exports following the collapse of the Soviet Union and a leap in oil import costs due to the Gulf War tipped the country into a balance of payments crisis.
Manmohan Singh, then finance minister, responded with shock treatment, devaluing the rupee by nearly 19 percent.
So determined was he to push this through, when the prime minister of the day got cold feet, he reportedly blamed the infamous inefficiency of India's telephone system to pretend that he couldn't contact the central bank in time.
His moves to prise open the economy set the stage for a long run of dazzling growth that peaked at 9.7 percent in 2006/07.
Although Gandhi appointed Singh as prime minister when the Congress party returned to power eight years ago, she has a far more socialist mindset than the Oxford-educated economist who drove that first round of reforms.
Image: The Economist magazine's cover featuring new Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is seen in this 2004 file photo.