Rahul Gandhi set to replace mum as Congress chief

India's Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi (centre) at a working committee meeting at the party's headquarters in New Delhi yesterday. His elevation to the post of president is expected to be a mere formality as he has already been running Co
India's Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi (centre) at a working committee meeting at the party's headquarters in New Delhi yesterday. His elevation to the post of president is expected to be a mere formality as he has already been running Congress, with his mother Sonia Gandhi battling ill health and reducing her role within the party.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

India's main opposition Congress party is set to formally elevate Mr Rahul Gandhi to the post of president in the first week of December, replacing his mother Sonia Gandhi.

Congress yesterday announced an election date for its top post in what is considered a mere formality for promoting Mr Gandhi, 47.

He has already been running Congress, with his mother, 70, 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 declared party president on Dec 4, when nominations close.

If there is more than one finalised candidate, voting will take place on Dec 16, and counting on Dec 19.

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

Mr Gandhi joined politics in 2004. But when Congress was in federal power, he 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 voter base 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 normally 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 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 Mr Modi continues to be popular. The party has also fared poorly in most state elections, including 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 takes place in two phases on Dec 9 and 14. The BJP is seen to be the clear front runner.

At a press conference yesterday, Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala noted that Mrs Gandhi, who successfully led the party to two consecutive general election wins, would continue to guide Congress 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 also Congress men and women," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2017, with the headline 'Rahul Gandhi set to replace mum as Congress chief'. Print Edition | Subscribe