NEW DELHI: Rahul Gandhi is set to be named the new leader of India’s Congress Party — the country’s oldest political party.
Monday was the deadline for nominations for party president, and 47-year-old Gandhi is currently the sole nominee, meaning his elevation to chief of the 132-year-old party seems now to be a formality.
Gandhi will likely inherit the leadership from his mother Sonia, who has led the party since 1998. He will be the sixth leader from the Nehru-Gandhi family to occupy the top party post. His great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was India’s first prime minister; his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, led India for 11 years; and his father Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister for five years in the 1980s.
But the Congress Party is in the midst of a crisis. It has its lowest parliamentary presence since India’s independence, with just 44 seats out of 545 in the Lower House, and holds power in only six of India’s 29 states. In major states, including Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Congress has been pushed to the political margins. And Congress’ dramatic fall has been in direct contrast to the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“There are multiple challenges before Rahul Gandhi today,” said Sudha Pai, a National Fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research and former professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “One challenge is to hold the party together, the second is to put forward an alternative vision so that people regain faith in the party, and third is to build up the organization and make it an election-winning machine.
“In terms of his ability to deal with politics,” she continued, “Rahul Gandhi seems to be far more prepared than (he was) a few years ago.”
Author and journalist Aarthi Ramachandran agrees. She stressed, however, that the timing of Gandhi’s promotion to the top leadership position is important.
“The elevation of Rahul was a fait accompli,” she explained. “What is interesting now is that the party has chosen this particular time, just before the crucial regional elections in Gujarat, for his anointment.”
Ramachandran, who wrote “Decoding Rahul Gandhi,” one of the first biographies of the Congress leader-elect, told Arab News that, unlike predecessors from his family when they have taken power, Gandhi is not “comfortably circumstanced.”
“At a time when (his) family, which has been at the center of the party, is weak and its charisma ebbing, it will be an uphill task to revive the party,” she said. “The new leader will have to work hard to prove his credentials and enhance his acceptance among the prospective alliance partners.”
She added, “Rahul Gandhi shares an uncomfortable relationship with politics and how much he is able to embrace the limitations of existing politics will also shape the Congress in coming years.”
The young and vocal Congress leader Tehseen Poonawalla believes that Gandhi is “the voice of an aspiring and progressive India.”
Poonawalla told Arab News, “We are going through an absolute crisis where our democracy and constitution are under threat. Rahul Gandhi’s elevation is important so that he can lead the opposition charge against the subversion of the constitution that is going on.”
The BJP, however, claims Gandhi’s promotion is a result of nepotism rather than ability.
“Rahul Gandhi has inherited the elevation. He has not earned it, as leaders in the BJP do,” G.L.V. Narsimha Rao, the BJP’s national spokesperson, told Arab News. “Dynasty and democracy are mutually inconsistent and an anachronistic concept. But for the Congress Party, keeping tight family control is a priority, rather than allowing leadership to emerge on merit.”
The Gujarat election results on Dec. 19 will be Gandhi’s first major test. Modi’s home state is in turmoil after 22 years of BJP dominance there and the Congress Party sees an opportunity for a statement-making victory. A strong showing in the western state would establish Gandhi as a strong challenger for Modi in the 2019 general elections.