Rahul Gandhi takes over as head of India’s Congress party

Fireworks exploded over the party’s headquarters in New Delhi, drowning out the voice of Sonia Gandhi as she handed over power to her son

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 December, 2017, 2:35pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 December, 2017, 9:21pm

Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s most famous political dynasty, on Saturday took over as president of the main opposition Congress while facing a stiff challenge from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalists.

Gandhi took the mantle from his mother Sonia Gandhi at a party function after a period of losing some power to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Gandhi’s party has suffered humiliating defeats in state elections since 2014, despite his campaigns to win back support.

Sonia Gandhi in her speech described her son as a new hope for Congress, as party workers danced, set off firecrackers and distributed confectionery to celebrate the generational shift in leadership.

Gandhi, 47, will be taking on Modi when the prime minister seeks a second five-year term in 2019. Modi has vowed to create a Congress-free India while working for the rise of Hindu nationalist forces.

Gandhi in his speech described himself as an “idealist” and said Indians were becoming disillusioned by the Modi government’s policies.

He said the Congress party, which ruled India for decades, took the country into the 21st century through modernisation and development. He accused Modi of putting India on “a medieval path where people are butchered because [of] who they are, beaten for what they believe in and killed for what they eat”.

“The Congress will take on this challenge and will never back down,” he said.

Gandhi was referring to killings and attacks on minority groups, especially Muslims, since the BJP swept to power in national elections in 2014. Most of the violence against Muslims has involved fringe Hindu vigilante groups that have become active in small towns and cities across India.

Gandhi is the sixth member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to lead Congress. His father Rajiv Gandhi, grandmother Indira Gandhi and great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru have served as prime ministers since India’s independence from British colonialists in 1947. Rahul Gandhi entered politics in 2004.

“Today, the Congress faces a possibly existential crisis even as Sonia Gandhi makes way for Rahul Gandhi to head the party,” said political commentator Neerja Chowdhury.

Gandhi was made the party’s vice-president in January 2013, serving under his mother. Sonia Gandhi, 71, stepped down on Saturday as the party’s longest-serving chief after 19 years. She has been unwell in recent years and pushing her son to the fore.

Asked what role she would play after her son’s elevation, she told New Delhi Television on Friday: “My role is to retire.”

However, party spokesman Randeep Surejewala said Sonia Gandhi retired as party president and not from politics.

“Her blessings, wisdom and innate commitment to Congress ideology shall always be our guiding light,” he tweeted.

The Gandhi family and Congress party have released little information about Sonia Gandhi’s health problems. She had surgery in the United States for an undisclosed reason in 2011, and has returned there for regular check-ups since then.