Rahul Gandhi is set to take the reins of India’s opposition Congress party from his mother Sonia Gandhi, who led the organization for two decades.
The sixth person from Nehru-Gandhi family to head the party, Gandhi’s elevation comes before the upcoming poll in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat this month and national elections in 2019.
Although his campaign in 2014 led to the Congress’s worst-ever defeat, the party is expected to put him forward as its candidate for prime minister in 2019. Lately, Gandhi’s become more active on social media and is campaigning hard against Modi in Gujarat.
“It was inevitable as nobody but a Gandhi can head the Congress party,” said Arati Jerath, a New Delhi-based author and political analyst. “After the 2014 debacle and string of assembly election defeats, the biggest challenge for Rahul is to create a robust organization that can win elections. Unless he addresses this issue, Congress will just die out.”
The Congress party was led by his great-great-grandfather, Motilal Nehru, a century ago and his father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all prime ministers on India.
Gandhi had declined requests to join the government during the 10 years of Manmohan Singh’s rule that began 2004. He kept a low profile, giving fewer parliamentary speeches than other party leaders and spending time developing the party organization.
His challenge now is to improve the prospects of India’s oldest political party which controls just six of India’s 29 states, down from 15 in 2013. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is in power in 18 states along with its allies.
In recognition of Modi’s economic policies, Moody’s Investors Service raised the country’s rating to its highest ever last month, while the Pew Research Center said the prime minister remains a popular leader. It’s left Gandhi with a tough road ahead.
Gandhi’s elevation “reflects the changing power structure and strategy within the Congress party,” in which state-level leaders are empowered to take decisions, said Sandeep Shastri, a political scientist and pro-vice chancellor of Bengaluru’s Jain University. “Whether this structure and strategy will work, only time will tell.”