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

Indian National Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi (left) is set to replace his mother, Sonia Gandhi (right) as party president in the first week of December.
Indian National Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi (left) is set to replace his mother, Sonia Gandhi (right) as party president in the first week of December.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - India's main opposition Congress party is set to formally elevate Rahul Gandhi as its president in the first week of December, replacing his mother Sonia Gandhi.

Congress on Monday (Nov 20) announced an election date for the president's post in what is considered a mere formality for elevating Mr Gandhi, 47.

He has already been running the party even as his mother, 70, has been battling ill health and reducing her role within the party.

And Mr Gandhi has been the face of the Congress campaign in various state level polls including in the ongoing Gujarat elections.

Unless there are last minute challengers, considered highly unlikely, Mr Gandhi is likely to be announced party president possibly by Dec 5.

The Congress Working Committee, the party's highest decision-making body that includes Mr Gandhi, on Monday decided on dates for internal elections including nominations for the president's post on Dec 4.

It also decided on scrutiny of nominations on Dec 5, the publication of a final list of contested candidates on December 11. There will be voting on Dec 16 if there is more than one candidate and counting on Dec 19.

Mr Gandhi's elevation has long been anticipated as his family has almost always led the Congress party. He comes from the Gandhi-Nehru family that has given the country three prime ministers.

He joined politics in 2004. But when the Congress was in federal power he had refused any role in government and preferred to stay on the fringes until 2013, when he took over as party vice president.

Still, Mr Gandhi, who is often called a reluctant prince, has struggled to make his mark in Indian politics and has been unable to revive the Congress party - seen as a secular party with its traditional voterbase in rural India and among minorities - with India today led by popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Lately though, the serious Mr Gandhi has found some traction by using humour to attack the Modi government.

He called the unpopular Goods and Services Tax, the Gabbar Singh Tax - a reference to an Indian movie character Gabbar Singh, one of the most popular villains in Indian cinema.

Amid social media buzz on this novel way of attacking the government and critics wondering who had injected a humorous streak into the Congress leader, Mr Gandhi tweeted that his dog Pidi was actually behind the previous tweets. That generated more smiles from the public.

Yet Mr Gandhi faces many challenges in reviving Congress as it has been struggling since a massive defeat in the 2014 general election and amid the continuing popularity of PM Modi.

The party has also fared poorly in most state elections including in the Uttar Pradesh elections, won by the BJP early this year.

Mr Gandhi's immediate challenge is the polls in Mr Modi's home state of Gujarat, which is taking place in two phases on December 9 and 14. The BJP is seen to be the clear frontrunner.

At a press conference on Monday, Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala noted that Mrs Sonia Gandhi, who successfully led the Congress party to two consecutive general election wins, would continue to guide the Congress party even after the elections.

"Sonia Gandhi is our leader and mentor. She has always guided the Congress. We cannot conceive that her guidance, her able leadership will not be available. It will always be available to not just Rahul-ji but Congress men and women,'' he said.