Stage is set for Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as Congress president

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New Delhi: A new era of leadership is set to begin in the Congress as its top body cleared the decks for setting in motion the election process of the new party president on Monday, in what is likely to end the nearly two-decade-long tenure of incumbent Sonia Gandhi.

With the party witnessing a generational shift, vice president Rahul Gandhi is all set to get elevated by end of next month. The 47-year-old is the sixth leader from the Nehru-Gandhi family.

On Monday, the party’s top decision-making body, Congress Working Committee (CWC), approved the schedule for electing a new president. The date of notification of polls is 1 December, last date of filing nominations is 4 December and scrutiny will take place on 5 December.

The last date for withdrawal of candidature is 11 December. If a contest is necessary, polling for the top post will be held on 16 December and counting will take place on 19 December.

The poll schedule was announced by senior Congress leader Mullappally Ramachandran, who leads the Central Election Authority authorized to hold internal polls.

If there is no challenger to Rahul Gandhi, then the party will announce on 5 December that he is the only contestant. However, in such a case too, a formal announcement on his name will not take place before 11 December, the last day of withdrawal of nomination. According to the deadline set by the Election Commission, the party had to complete its internal polls process by 31 December.

With his elevation, Rahul Gandhi would replace his mother Sonia Gandhi, who is the longest serving Congress president. Rahul Gandhi’s elevation comes at a time when the Congress is going through one of its worst electoral phases having faced a historic drubbing in 2014 Lok Sabha elections and losing over a dozen of state polls since then.

On Monday, in response to a question on what role Sonia Gandhi would play in the event of Rahul Gandhi’s elevation, Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said: “Let the election process be concluded and I will be very happy to answer that question. Sonia Gandhi is our leader and mentor. She has always guided the Congress party and we cannot conceive that her guidance, her able leadership will not be available. It will always be available not only to Rahul Gandhi but to all Congress members.”

Senior party leaders feel that the mammoth challenge ahead of Rahul Gandhi will be keeping the party united, taking on a surging Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of 2019 national polls, making key organizational changes particularly in the states, playing the leading role in taking other like-minded opposition parties together and above all, presenting Congress as a credible electoral alternative to the common people.

“Congress is a political party where you have to listen to each and everyone, you cannot ignore one person for the other. This will be Rahul Gandhi’s biggest challenge—how do you take everyone together with you,” a senior party leader, who has closely worked with him said, requesting anonymity.

Rahul Gandhi took over as the number two of Congress in 2013 as vice-president. In the past two years, the chorus for his elevation has grown even as he has been calling the shots in most of the party’s affairs including leading the party in key state election campaigns.

“Given the style and the way in which the Congress party has been functioning, its attachment to a family has been emphasized. Rahul Gandhi’s elevation in that sense has to be seen from the prism that the party requires a dynastic figure to keep the party united,” said Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and pro-vice chancellor of Jain University, Bengaluru.

“However, one sees a small change in the operations of the Congress party under Rahul Gandhi. It is now trying to keep national leaders in maintaining the unity of the party whereas more and more state leaders are being projecting specially in elections of different states,” he added.

According to Shastri, Gandhi’s single biggest challenge would be to “convince the common people that he is a 24/7 leader and not a switch on-switch off politician”.

Over the next two years, apart from 2019 polls, Rahul Gandhi’s immediate challenge would be seven state elections where it is directly pitted against the BJP, including Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Of these, Karnataka is the only state where the Congress is incumbent and rest is with the BJP.