NEW DELHI: Rahul Gandhi took over as Congress president today from his mother Sonia Gandhi, who has led India’s oldest party for 19 years. The 47-year-old, who has for years been seen as a reluctant politician but has lately shown signs of shedding that image, officially took charge in a ceremony on the lawns of the party’s 24 Akbar Road headquarters in Delhi.
Celebrations started early at the office, where drumbeats and folk dancers from various states welcomed hordes of party workers holding flags and banners.
Rahul Gandhi is the fifth member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to lead the Congress; no one challenged his elevation in the organization election that critics describe as a sham.
“Led by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress will once again be seen a new role in Rashtranirman (nation-building),” said Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala.
On the future role of Sonia Gandhi, 71, who yesterday talked about retiring, Mr Surjewala said: “We don’t retire seniors, we use their experience…Be it Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh, they will remain important for the party.”
Sonia Gandhi, who took over in 1998 and is the party’s longest-serving president, told NDTV on Friday: “My role now is to retire.” She also said it had been her son Rahul who had been playing an active role in all decisions in the past three years.
Congress leaders quickly clarified that Sonia Gandhi was retiring only as Congress president, not from politics.
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Rahul Gandhi was elevated as the Congress party’s vice president in January 2013 (AFP)
But Rahul Gandhi is widely expected to begin his presidency with two new defeats for the Congress, which has been struggling to win elections since it lost power at the centre in 2014.
What the Congress calls a “new era” comes two days before election results for two states that exit polls say the party won’t win – Gujarat, where the BJP has ruled for 22 years, and Himachal Pradesh, which the Congress had barely won in the previous election.
In Gujarat, Rahul Gandhi led the Congress campaign from the front for the first time, going all-in as the BJP enlisted all its prominent faces in an intensive bid to retain PM Modi’s home state. Congress leaders say he has proved his chops with a spirited campaign, a newfound ease in political oratory and eagerness to take on even PM Modi on his home turf.
Rahul Gandhi was elevated as the party’s vice president in January 2013 and has since then, operated as the party’s number 2, but his track record hasn’t been very impressive, with more defeats than election wins. But after his high-voltage performance in Gujarat, commentators say he is finally ready, after what they call the “longest internship” in Indian politics.
Mr Gandhi’s takeover sets the stage for a generational shift in the Congress when he gets down to naming his core team, though he is expected to hand key tasks and advisory roles to party seniors, called the “old guard” to draw on their experience. He faces a tough challenge ahead, with elections due in 16 states before the national election in 2019.