Rahul Gandhi, scion of the preeminent family in Indian politics, was appointed to the number two role in the governing Congress party as it seeks to appeal to younger voters ahead of an election next year.
Gandhi, 42, was named vice-president at a three-day party strategy meeting in the Rajasthan city of Jaipur, Congress spokesman Janardan Dwivedi said yesterday. A decision on who would lead the party into the federal ballot scheduled for May 2014 would be made at a later date, he said. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother, continues as party president.
Since being elected to parliament more than eight years ago, Rahul Gandhi has declined requests to join Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government and kept a low profile, giving few major speeches. With his official elevation in the party, that will now have to change as Indians demand to know his views on crucial issues and with the opposition expected to target his leadership.
“He’s now going to be responsible and accountable for the successes and failures of the party,” former election analyst and now politician Yogendra Yadav said in live comments on the CNN-IBN television channel. India will now see if he has “the political judgment and the political stamina” to succeed, Yadav said.
The announcement of Gandhi’s new role sparked celebrations and fireworks in Jaipur, especially from members of the Congress youth wing, which Gandhi has headed for several years. Around half of India’s 1.2 billion people are under 25 years of age.
Gandhi had earlier been named a member of a six-member panel that will formulate and implement alliances, the party manifesto and publicity ahead of the 2014 poll.
A spokesman for the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, mocked Congress for its incremental promotion of Gandhi. “It’s an eyewash to distract the nation,” said Rajiv Pratap Rudy. Gandhi “must now make his opinions clear.”
Singh, India’s 80-year-old prime minister, will look to Gandhi to help resurrect the government’s fortunes after being dogged for almost two years by corruption allegations, a faltering economy and plunging popularity. Flunking a major leadership test, Congress was routed into fourth place in May elections in Uttar Pradesh state after Rahul Gandhi took charge of the party’s campaign.
Gandhi’s family have dominated Congress and Indian politics since freedom from British rule in 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s great-grandfather and independence movement hero, became the country’s first prime minister. He was followed by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father. Both were assassinated, Indira while still in office, bringing comparisons with the Kennedy family.
When he has spoken, Gandhi has focused on issues facing India’s poor and how to make economic growth more inclusive, throwing his weight behind a bill to raise compensation for farmers’ land when it’s acquired for industry or roads. Even with Gandhi’s backing, the proposals became mired in ministerial debate.
Singh in September began his biggest policy push in a decade, opening the retail and aviation industries to foreign investment, raising diesel prices and cutting tax on Indian companies borrowing abroad in a bid to revive a stalled agenda. He followed that up in October with proposals to allow greater overseas holdings in the pensions and insurance industries, and an overhaul of his cabinet.
Author and Times of India columnist Santosh Desai said last year at the release of a new book on Rahul Gandhi that the presence of a member of the dynasty at the top of the Congress provided a degree of certainty to a broad-based party whose constituents often have little else in common.
Still, “It’s a fading legacy that holds the party together by necessity,” Desai said.
Sonia Gandhi declined the opportunity to be prime minister in 2004 after leading Congress to election victory. Citing expected opposition attacks over her Italian ancestry, she instead opted to install Singh as premier.
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