Rahul Gandhi is now president of Congress party, takes over from mother

India's main opposition party Congress appointed Rahul Gandhi as its president on Dec 11, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Mr Rahul Gandhi was named president of the opposition Congress party on Monday (Dec 11) with the leadership of the 132-year old Indian party passing from mother to son.

The 47-year old takes over the reins of the party from Sonia Gandhi, 71, an Italian born politician who has been president for nearly two decades.

Celebrations broke out over the announcement on Monday with party workers bursting fire crackers and dancing outside the party headquarters in Delhi.

Mr Gandhi himself was on the campaign trail in Gujarat state, when the announcement was made.

"This is a historic occasion,'' said Congress leader Mullappally Ramachandran, who made the announcement at a press conference here. He said 89 nomination papers had been filed proposing Mr Gandhi's name and that the handing over of the certificate of election, a formal event, would be done on Saturday (Dec 16).

Mr Gandhi comes from the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty, considered political royalty, which has given India three prime ministers including his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv Gandhi.

Still the Gandhi scion, who is the 60th president, takes over at a time when the party has still not completely recovered from a humiliating defeat in the 2014 elections in which it won just 44 out of 543 seats in the Indian parliament.

The party has also faced electoral reversals in subsequent state elections including in Delhi.

Analysts said that Mr Gandhi, who has been in a leadership position since 2013 as vice-president, had multiple challenges before him.

"The first challenge for him is to build up his party and build it up organisationally. He has to clarify the party's economic vision," said Delhi-based political analyst Amulya Ganguli.

"But it is a good time for him to take over. The Congress has a good shot of winning state elections next year in Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Karnataka. Mr Gandhi has made a mark in Gujarat.

"He is no longer the adoloscent part-time politician," Mr Ganguli added.

Mr Gandhi, who entered politics 13 years ago and for years shunned any leadership role, is now expected to choose his own team and put forward his vision for the party, which traditionally has been rooted in socialism and has its support base among the poor.

Mr Gandhi will also need to ensure that the party's traditional vote bank among rural India like farmers remains intact amid efforts by the Bharatiya Janata Party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, to woo these same voters.

Some allies remained positive that Mr Gandhi would step up to the task.

"Whether the Congress wins or loses in Gujarat, it is a turning point for Rahul Gandhi because he has gained credibility during the Gujarat elections. Allies are looking to him now. He is the only alternative to Modi because Congress is the only alternative to the BJP," said Mr Sudhir Panwar a senior leader from the Samajwadi Party in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

In Gujarat, Mr Gandhi has been the face of the Congress campaign.

He has successfully stitched up an alliance with Hardik Patel, a leader of the powerful Patel community and undertook a tour of temples in the state as part of a strategy to win Hindu votes.

He also last week suspended senior leader Mani Shankar Aiyar for calling the Prime Minister "neech aadmi" or vile man. The word "neech" is often associated with the lower caste, triggering a controversy.

While Mr Modi has gone on to highlight the jibe during rallies in Gujarat, Mr Gandhi noted that nobody in the Congress would be allowed to insult the Prime Minister and get away with it. He, too, has said he would not insult the Prime Minister.

"Modi-ji keeps using bad words against me in his speeches... No matter what PM says about me, I won't utter even a single bad word about the PM," he said in a rally on Sunday.

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