Rahul Gandhi appeared certain to be named leader of India’s opposition Congress Party, a job he has spent his life preparing for, after a deadline for nominations expired on Monday with no other reported candidates.
Speculation has been rife for months that the 47-year-old vice-president of the party would soon take over from his mother Sonia, who has led Congress for 19 years. Rahul, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather all served as prime minister, was elected vice-president of the Congress party in 2013 and has long been his mother’s presumed successor.
Congress has not officially confirmed his new role, which sources said may only be announced after Dec. 11, the deadline for candidates to withdraw. But with no sign of a rival, senior leaders of the party were on Monday tweeting their congratulations to the scion of the most enduring dynasty in Indian politics after he officially filed his nomination papers.
Manmohan Singh, who headed the last Congress government, told reporters outside the Congress headquarters that Rahul would “carry on the great traditions of the Congress party.” A party spokesperson later told AFP that Rahul had been endorsed by 9,000 party delegates during the nomination process, calling it a “very happy and proud moment for us.”
Gurpreet Mahajan, political studies professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the change in leadership was a “significant development” in the history of India’s oldest party. “Rahul is going to be its face from now on,” he said. “It will be important how he manages to bring changes in the party functioning, like bringing young leaders to the fore, and overcoming opposition criticism about his leadership.”
Rahul was strongly criticized for a lackluster campaign for the 2014 general election, in which Congress recorded its worst-ever showing and lost power to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Since the national election defeat, the party has lost polls in many states to the BJP, exposing him to further criticism and doubts about his ability as a leader.
But few inside the party have been willing publicly to criticize the family that has been at its helm for generations. Sonia Gandhi wielded huge influence over Congress administrations despite having no official government role. But the state of her health has been the subject of much speculation in India since 2011, when she went to the United States for surgery.
Rahul has long had the reputation of a reluctant leader who lacks the charisma to revive the flagging political dynasty. Some Congress supporters have called for his sister Priyanka to take a more prominent role, but she has always refused.
Party supporters however said Rahul had displayed greater political acumen in recent years. “Earlier, he was too young and didn’t have a lot of experience, so he used to make mistakes sometimes. But now he has become more seasoned,” veteran party leader Virbhadra Singh told AFP ahead of Monday’s deadline.
Congress has ruled India for most of the period since independence in 1947 and has almost always been led by the Nehru-Gandhi clan, beginning with the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It held its last leadership election in 2010, when Sonia Gandhi stood unopposed.
Rahul has led campaigning for upcoming elections in Gujarat state, with Sonia Gandhi taking a back seat in recent months.