India's Rahul Gandhi set to take over as Congress party chief

 20 Nov 2017 - 14:28

India's Rahul Gandhi set to take over as Congress party chief
Indian National Congress party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi (C) looks on during the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting at the Congress party headquarters in New Delhi on November 20, 2017. AFP / MONEY SHARMA

AFP

New Delhi: India's opposition Congress party will hold leadership elections next month, an official said Monday, amid growing speculation Rahul Gandhi will take over from his mother as its leader.

Rahul, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather all served as prime minister, was the centre-left party's front man in the last general election. But his 70-year-old mother Sonia remains its president and still calls the shots.

She has not publicly announced a decision to stand down as Congress president, but party official Mullappally Ramachandran said after a meeting of senior leaders on Monday that an election would be held next month.

The announcement followed months of speculation that the 47-year-old scion of the Gandhi dynasty would soon take over from his mother. Party sources said he would likely stand unopposed for the role.

Rahul Gandhi was elected vice-president of the Congress party in 2013 and has long been his mother's presumed successor.

He was strongly criticised for a lacklustre campaign for the 2014 general election, in which Congress recorded its worst ever showing and lost power to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party.

But few inside the party, which has since suffered a series of state election defeats, have been willing to publicly criticise the family that has been at its helm for generations.

Rasheed Kidwai, a political journalist and author of a book on Sonia Gandhi, said Rahul's promotion was now a "foregone conclusion", warning he would be under huge pressure to turn the party's fortunes around.

"In the party's history, no Gandhi has failed to win elections and get results," Kidwai told AFP. "Rahul is yet to pass that test."

Kidwai said Rahul was more "temperamental and impulsive" than his Italian-born mother, widow of the assassinated former premier Rajiv Gandhi, and would be taking over at a challenging time for the party.

Sonia Gandhi wielded huge influence over Congress administrations despite having no official government role.

But the state of her health has been the subject of much speculation in India since 2011, when she went to the United States for surgery.

Rahul has long had the reputation of a reluctant leader who lacks the charisma to revive the flagging political dynasty.

Some Congress supporters have called for his sister Priyanka to take a more prominent role, but she has always refused.

Party supporters however said Rahul had displayed greater political acumen in recent years.

"Earlier, he was too young and didn't have a lot of experience, so he used to make mistakes sometimes. But now he has become more seasoned," veteran party leader Virbhadra Singh told AFP ahead of Monday's announcement.

Congress has ruled India for most of the period since independence in 1947 and has almost always been led by the Nehru-Gandhi clan, beginning with the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

On Monday the party set a December 4 deadline for nominations for president and said any vote would be held on December 16.

It held its last leadership election in 2010, when Sonia Gandhi stood unopposed.