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Rahul Gandhi appointed Congress president: All about his political journey and the challenges ahead

From a Doon School student to the Congress president, from a ‘reluctant’ politician to the face of the party’s Gujarat campaign --- Rahul Gandhi has come a long way. As he takes charge as the Congress president, here’s all you must know about him.

india Updated: Dec 16, 2017 14:42 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
New Delhi, Hindustan Times
Rahul Gandhi,Rahul Gandhi Congress president,Indian Nation Congress
Congress president Rahul Gandhi with his mother and outgoing party chief Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi on Saturday.(Arvind Yadav/HT PHOTO)

Rahul Gandhi was appointed the president of the Indian National Congress Saturday, as supporters broke into loud celebrations and shouted slogans at the party headquarters in New Delhi.

Rahul took over the reigns from his mother Sonia, 71, who has led the party for 19 long years. She said Friday it was time for her to retire, though the party clarified that she had retired from the party chief’s role and not from politics.

The 47-year-old Rahul’s appointment comes two days ahead of the assembly election results in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections, where he led the party’s high-profile campaign. Rahul’s main challenge remains the revamping of party organisation, apart from electoral battles in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

As Rahul comes of age in Indian politics, here’s a look at his political journey and the many challenges he faces:

Early days

Born in 1970, Rahul is the first child of Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia and the grandson of Indira Gandhi. He and sister Priyanka have lived their entire lives under the spotlight. Rahul was just shy of his 21st birthday when his father was assassinated in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, in 1991.

Rahul attended The Doon School in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, from 1981 and then joined St Stephen’s College in Delhi, before moving to the United States and then to the United Kingdom for higher education.

Politics wasn’t Rahul’s first calling. After he finished his M.Phil from Cambridge University’s Trinity College in 1995, he worked at a management consulting firm in London for three years. When he returned to India, he started running his own strategy consultancy in Mumbai.

Entry into politics

Rahul’s first foray into active politics was in 2004, when he contested the Lok Sabha elections from his father’s former constituency Amethi. He won his first election by over one lakh votes. Ever since his entry into politics, Rahul has had to contend with labels such as ‘prince’ and political rivals have focussed on the ‘dynasty’ jibe to attack him.

In 2007, he was appointed the Congress general secretary. He also took charge of Indian Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India.

The first test of Rahul’s political mettle came in 2009, when he campaigned for the Congress during Uttar Pradesh elections. The Congress, which had been struggling in the state, won 22 out of 80 seats, its best show in years.

But this victory was short-lived. Rahul’s extensive tour of Bihar could not land Congress a victory in the state in the 2010 state elections, and the party managed a measly 4 out of 243 assembly seats.

UPA days

In 2011, Rahul made national headlines when he took on the Mayawati government during the anti-land acquisition protests by farmers in Bhatta Parsaul. He dodged the police to enter the village, riding pillion on a farmer’s motorbike, and was arrested by the administration.

While Rahul wasn’t officially helming the party, it was his strategies that the Congress followed in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh elections. But Gandhi’s high-profile campaign and tours of the state resulted in naught. The Congress suffered a crushing defeat.

He refused any cabinet position in both the terms of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government. In 2013, Gandhi was appointed as the Congress vice-president at a party conclave in Jaipur.

The 2014 general elections were his litmus test, but the incumbent Congress government faced a humiliating defeat as the BJP-led NDA claimed a landslide victory. The BJP won 282 seats by itself, becoming the first time non-Congress party to win a simple majority on its own.

The run-up to the elections were marked by a fierce contest. The BJP’s party machinery painted Rahul as the ‘shehzada’, who was out of touch with reality. He was bested by Narendra Modi when it came to communication skills. The Congress’ hesitation in making Rahul the sole face of its campaign was seen as the party’s reluctance to lay the blame of defeat squarely on his shoulders.

New energy

On February 23, 2015, the Gandhi scion took an impromptu 56-day break from politics, even “missing” posters surfaced with his face and name in Amethi. It also prompted a slew of political commentaries that saw Rahul as a reluctant politician.

In April 2015, Rahul addressed Parliament on the issue of farmer crisis,calling the NDA a ‘suit-boot ki sarkaar’. In May the same year, his office opened a Twitter account, which now has a following of 4.68 million.

He has become more active of late. His speech at University of California, Berkeley, earlier this year garnered praise for Rahul’s frankness in answering questions on dynasty and the BJP’s economic policies. His astute use of his Twitter account, laced with humour and sarcasm,challenged central government’s policies such as demonetisation and GST and increased the Gandhi scion’s social media following.

Rahul led Congress’s high-pitched campaign in Gujarat, where he said the party expects a ‘zabardast’ result. He took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and stitched alliances with caste-based leaders such as Hardik Patel in the PM’s home state.

Challenges galore

As the president of the 131-year-old party, Rahul faces the tough task to reinvigorate Congress, which has been reeling due to a string of electoral debacles.

His first challenge will be to revamp the party. The key is to ensure that the transition is smooth, a balance is struck between young leaders and the old guard, which in the past had some reservations about his style of functioning.

The party also has to mount a strident campaign for state elections in 2018 to begin gathering a momentum that can put it in a better position for the general elections in 2019. Retaining Karnataka and dethroning the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan will be a daunting task, one that cannot be achieved without addressing problems such as infighting and regional leadership gaps.

With the Congress at its weakest in Parliament and arch-rival BJP appearing to gain ground nationally, it is crucial for Rahul to galvanise an otherwise demoralised Congress.

Ahead of the next Lok Sabha elections, Rahul will also have to decide on alliance partners to prevent a division of the opposition vote that could help the BJP. He will have to be the Congress president, the “glue” and more.

First Published: Dec 16, 2017 11:50 IST