Last week, the Indian National Congress (INC) Party apointed 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi as its second in command, signalling a much anticipated generational shift in the party and a definite transition in the leadership away from his 66-year-old mother Sonia Gandhi. The official elevation of the Gandhi scion to the newly created post of vice president makes him a potential prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections.
As the son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and current Congress President Sonia Gandhi, the young Gandhi has been active in politics for a number of years now. From the beginning, political analysts have speculated that he would ultimately be his mother’s successor but he has yet to hold any position in the government or the party except being one of the many general secretaries of the organization.
The Nehru-Gandhi family is the most popular political dynasty in India and they have been the undisputed leaders of the Congress Party dating back to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The family’s importance to the Party was underscored when Sonia Gandhi refused to lead the party after the assassination of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991. From that year until she reversed this decision in 1998 the party started crumbling and its strength in the parliament declined to just 114 seats, the lowest in the party’s history. The organisation got a new lease of life, however, after Rajiv Gandhi’s widow took over in 1998. It was under her leadership the Party managed to reenergize itself and returned to power in 2004 after being out of power for a number of years.
The big announcement concerning Rahul Gandhi came during a strategic conclave of the party in the western Indian city of Jaipur, where the party’s central and regional leaders gathered over the weekend to begin preparing for the upcoming state elections this year and the general elections in early 2014.
The indication that this was a generational change was evident from the invitation given to a large number of young Congress leaders to attend the brainstorming session, which only the senior leaders are usually asked to attend.
Analysts say that the transition is in part a reflection of India’s changing demographics with people under the age of 25 now constituting more than 70 percent of the electorate. Moreover, Indian youth appear to be politically charged as evidenced by their participation and leadership in the anti-corruption movement and the recent protests following the horrendous gang-rape and death of a young girl in Delhi.
The elevation of Rahul Gandhi should be seen in this context. Despite his notable lack of any achievements thus far, his youth and relatively scandal-free past make him the most palatable candidate for the Congress Party at this critical juncture.
Furthermore, political analysts believe that if nominated, Rahul would be able to best his most likely competitor in the Prime Ministerial race in 2014—Narendra Modi, from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). They believe that a youthful and uncontroversial Rahul Gandhi would be more acceptable to the people and prospective alliance partners than a divisive Modi, who has a blemished record that includes presiding over the 2002 sectarian riots in Gujarat which, according to some estimates, claimed more than 1,000 lives, most of them Muslims. More generally the BJP is hamstrung by continued dissension within its ranks over who its next leader should be.
All of this bodes well for Rahul and the Congress Party’s political fortunes.