India's Congress party mulls over top post as Rahul Gandhi resigns

Mr Rahul Gandhi had been Congress president since December 2017.
Mr Rahul Gandhi had been Congress president since December 2017.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - The Congress party was forced to start looking for a new party chief after Mr Rahul Gandhi formalised his decision to resign as president in an open letter in which he said the party needed new leadership and tough decisions.

Mr Gandhi, who comes from India’s most prominent political dynasty, had resigned more than a month ago after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) crushed the Congress in the general elections. The party had only 52 of the 542 seats that were contested in the lower house of Parliament, while the BJP won 303 seats.

But the Congress had refused to accept Mr Gandhi’s resignation amid speculation that he would be persuaded to continue heading the party. Party leaders and workers staged protests over the last month to urge the 49-year-old to take back his resignation. 

In the open letter, Mr Gandhi explained he would continue to work for the party under a new leadership. “As president of the Congress party, I am responsible for the loss of the 2019 election. Accountability is critical for the future growth of our party. It is for this reason that I have resigned as Congress president. Rebuilding the party requires hard decisions and numerous people will have to be made accountable for the failure of 2019,” he wrote.

He said he had no hatred for the BJP, but would continue to fight the party on ideological grounds. 

“We didn’t fight a political party in the 2019 election. Rather, we fought the entire machinery of the Indian state, every institution of which was marshalled against the opposition.’’ 

The BJP has denied the opposition charge that it had influenced neutral institutions such as the media and Election Commission. 

Following Mr Gandhi’s letter, speculation mounted over who would next lead the Congress party. Indian media reported that senior leader Motilal Vohra, 90, was likely to take over as interim president.

Names of senior leaders Sushil Kumar Shinde and Mallikarjun Kharge were floated by the media amid speculation that the party would first choose an interim president. 

The Congress party was once the dominant political force in India, but its political influence has waned since the rise of the BJP.

Mr Gandhi, who is from the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty that has given India three prime ministers, was unable to mount a strong challenge to Mr Modi. The Congress suffered a humiliating defeat in 2014 and again this year under his leadership. 

His campaign this year, which focused on many issues including impropriety in a defence deal and calling the Prime Minister a thief, is not seen to have resonated among voters. 

Not only did the Congress perform poorly, but Mr Gandhi – whose great-grandfather, grandmother and father were prime ministers – also lost in the family bastion of Amethi, which was known as the Gandhi family’s constituency. 

Still, he is expected to remain a power centre within the party, which has for decades banked on members of the Nehru-Gandhi family to help it navigate through the turbulence of Indian politics. 

“We know the leadership of Mr Gandhi has been very important for the party. He has strengthened the party,’’ Mr Vohra told reporters.

Analysts said Mr Gandhi would continue to play a role in the party.

“It was becoming politically very difficult to justify his continuation, especially due to consecutive (general election) defeats. Somebody had to take responsibility. He is trying to make a virtue out of a necessity,’’ said Dr Sandeep Shastri, pro-vice-chancellor of Jain University. 

“He has, in a way, taken the sting out of the BJP criticism of the Congress party. The main criticism used to be the Gandhi family (and dynastic politics). The BJP has lost its edge because he has accepted responsibility for it.’’