Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi was Dec. 11 elected president of the country’s oldest political party, returning officer Mullappally Ramachandran announced here Dec. 11.
Rahul Gandhi’s long-delayed elevation comes in the midst of a Congress party existential crisis. His main challenges will be revamping of party organization, and the electoral battles in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The younger Gandhi will formally take the reins of the grand old party Dec. 16, two days before the counting of votes for the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly elections, the outcome of which could set voting trends ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Rahul, 47, who will take over for his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who has helmed the country’s oldest party for 19 years, will be the sixth member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to hold the top position of the 132-year-old party.
The outcome of the Gujarat polls may be interpreted as an indication of Rahul’s abilities as a “campaigner and vote-getter.”
The next round of assembly polls – which being in 2018, first in Karnataka and later in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh – will be crucial for Rahul in order to build the momentum to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha polls.
The state elections, with Bharatiya Janata Party as the key rival, will also be the first major polls directly under Rahul Gandhi’s charge as party chief. Assembly polls will also be held early next year in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura.
The challenges for Rahul Gandhi include infusing fresh energy and life into Congress workers and evolving a proper strategy to galvanize the party, following a string of electoral losses that began with the 2014 Lok Sabha debacle.
As the new party president, the younger Gandhi has to be decisive in forging a larger opposition alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls under a “collective leadership” and possibly projecting himself as the alternative to Modi with the support of different parties.
Rahul Gandhi has often been perceived as a reluctant politician, due in part to his lengthy trips abroad, which delayed his stepping into the role of party chief.
His decision to not assume ministerial responsibility in two United Progressive Alliance governments and a perceived failure to follow through on issues he himself raised, drew strong criticism.
To some extent, he has been able to counter those perceptions with his sharp, aggressive attacks on Modi and the BJP. His recent trip to the United States, where he held interactions with think tanks, brought about a sea change to his image.
In Gujarat, where success will be a big morale-booster for the Congress, Rahul has sought to create a broad social coalition and has forced Modi to react.
Reviving the Congress in Uttar Pradesh – the state that sends the largest contingent of 80 members to the Lok Sabha – is going to be another major challenge for Rahul Gandhi.
The results of the local body polls in Amethi and Rae Bareli, the Lok Sabha constituencies of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi respectively, have not improved Rahul Gandhi’s image.
Rahul Gandhi had been projected as a young leader who understands the language and pulse of the youth, but Modi has been more successful in winning the section that has large electoral presence. The Congress also has to devise ways to woo the large middle class.
Within the party, Gandhi has several decisions to make, including whether to project chief ministerial candidates in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and who those candidates will be.
Creating unity in faction-ridden state units and striking a balance between the “old guard” and younger aspirants are among other top challenges the new president faces.
Currently, the Congress only rules in five states and one union territory, and if the party loses in Gujarat and Karnataka in 2018, it will diminish its chances of staging a comeback to the Center in 2019.
Rahul Gandhi, who is into his third term as Lok Sabha MP, was made Congress vice president in 2013 as a stepping stone to his eventual elevation to president.
Since 2004, Rahul Gandhi has been the Lok Sabha member from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. In 2007, he was named Congress general secretary in charge of the party’s youth and student wings.
He has attended St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, Harvard University and Rollins College, Florida, from where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree.
He received an M. Phil in Development Studies from Trinity College, Cambridge University. Thereafter, he joined the Monitor Group in London, a strategy consulting group, where he worked for three years.
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