NEW DELHI —
A fourth generation of India’s powerful Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty came to the helm of the Congress Party Saturday as Rahul Gandhi vowed to rebuild a “Grand and Young Old party.”
But the 47-year-old leader faces a daunting challenge in emerging as a credible challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and rebuilding the party that was in power for most of the seven decades since independence but suffered a crushing defeat in 2014.
The lone contender in the election for the top post in the party, Gandhi, long know as “heir apparent” takes over from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who was its head for 19 years. His father, Rajiv Gandhi and grandmother, Indira Gandhi were prime ministers.
Gandhi, whose leadership skills have long been questioned, mounted a strong attack on Modi after taking charge at a function in New Delhi.
“The Congress took India into the 21st century, while the Prime Minister today is taking us backwards to a medieval past where people are butchered because of who they are, beaten for what they believe and killed for what they eat. This ugly violence shames us in the world,” he said in an address.
Gandhi was referring to sporadic attacks by mobs and cow vigilante groups on Muslims and lower caste Hindus suspected of eating beef since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power. The attacks have raised fears of growing intolerance by Hindu fringe groups under BJP rule.
There were exuberant celebrations at the Congress Party headquarters in New Delhi, and many leaders put their faith in his ability to rejuvenate the party.
It is not an easy challenge. Gandhi takes charge at a time when the BJP has emerged as the country’s most formidable political force and has marginalized the Congress Party.
And questions persist on whether Rahul Gandhi has the political acumen needed. His record has been lackluster and his critics have called him the “reluctant politician” and “undeserving prince.” Since he became vice president of the party in 2013, Congress has suffered its worst electoral defeats. After being reduced to its lowest tally in parliament in 2014, the party has lost elections in six states and now rules only two of India’s large states besides a handful of small ones.
But political analysts say Gandhi has begun showing signs of emerging as a more decisive leader in recent months as he takes on a more aggressive stand against the BJP. His attack on Modi after taking charge was pointed, and he led a spirited campaign against the BJP during recent state elections, including that in Modi’s home state, Gujarat.
“I also would have believed till some time ago that he was a switch on, off-switch on politician, he did not have it in him to be a 24/7 politician,” says political scientist Sandeep Shastri, pro vice chancellor of Jain University. “But then the way he has led the party in the Gujarat campaign, has provided some proof that he has the potential to galvanize the party cadre, to be there for the long run.”
Analysts however say that Rahul Gandhi will have to work on many fronts if the Congress party is to recover ground: energize a dispirited party cadre, bring on board older leaders and devise a new strategy to take on the BJP ahead of general elections in 2019.
His “dynastic roots” have also been frequently questioned in a young and aspirational country where people have often expressed exasperation at the Congress Party’s inability to promote a leader outside the Gandhi family. BJP leaders have frequently mocked the Congress Party for what it says is promotion of “dynasty” over merit, and Prime Minister Modi has often drawn the contrast between Gandhi and his own origins — the son of a tea seller who made it to the top of his party.
But political analyst Shastri said that “for the Congress Party, the Nehru-Gandhi family in some senses symbolizes the forces of unity to hold the party together.”