India’s Congress Party to elect first leader not from Gandhi family in more than 20 years

Election is historic one for political party that has ruled country for more than half of its independence

The Congress Party’s interim president Sonia Gandhi casts her vote during the election for party president in New Delhi, India. AP
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Thousands of delegates from India’s Congress Party voted this week to elect the first leader in more than two decades who is not a member of the famed Gandhi family.

The 137-year-old party, which has produced three prime ministers and ruled India for more than half the time since the country gained independence from Britain in 1947, has seen its electoral fortunes decline in recent years after back-to-back defeats by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Many critics and political rivals have blamed weak leadership and “nepotism” for the crushing electoral defeats of the centre-left political party, including in the 2019 national elections, when Nehru-Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi led the party.

Mr Modi has blasted the Gandhis for running the party as a “family enterprise”, particularly slamming Mr Rahul for lacking political acumen.

The right-wing leader has called Mr Rahul, once considered a potential candidate for prime minister, a “prince” and has taken swipes at his “elite” family background.

The 52-year-old Congress leader, known as the “reluctant politician”, stepped down from the party president’s post following the defeat, leaving his mother, Sonia Gandhi, to take over as the interim leader.

The election is seen as a historic event for the party, as it is the sixth time in its history that an electoral contest has been held to choose the party's leader.

At least 9,500 members of the State Congress Committee, including the electoral college, will choose between veteran party leaders Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor, said Madhusudan Mistry, chairman of the party’s Central Election Authority.

“Of 9,900 delegates, around 9,500 voted in the election … Congress president polls were held in an open manner,” Mr Mistry said.

The sealed ballot boxes were transported to the capital Delhi on Tuesday and kept in a secure room at the party headquarters.

The ballot papers will be mixed before counting, which begins on Wednesday morning, to avoid knowing the votes for any candidate from a particular state. The verdict is likely to be announced by the evening.

Significance

The Indian National Congress, often called the Congress Party, was founded in 1885 as part of the national movement to fight the British colonial empire.

During India’s long journey towards freedom, the party became the face of the non-violent independence movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

The party transformed into the dominant political force following Indian independence in 1947, with the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as its leader.

Congress appointed Acharya Kriplani as its first president in 1947, followed by the elevation of Bhogaraju Pattabhi Sitaramayya and Purushottam Das Tandon to party chief in 1948 and 1950, respectively.

Nehru served as the party leader between 1951 and 1955. He left the post in 1955 and U N Dhebar took over the reins of the party.

Four years later, Nehru’s daughter and former prime minister Indira Gandhi became the party president in 1959, followed by Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, who remained at the helm until 1963.

India's Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi listens to her son Rahul Gandhi during her husband and former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's memorial. Reuters

Gandhi again became the Congress president and held the reins of the party from 1978-1984.

After the assassination of Gandhi in October 1984, her son, Rajiv Gandhi, also a former prime minister, served as the party president from 1985 to 1991.

Following his death, P V Narasimha Rao became president until 1996, followed by Sitaram Kesri until 1998. He was the last non-Gandhi party chief, as the family returned to the party leadership after his tenure.

Sonia Gandhi became the president in 1998 after refusing to enter active politics for close to seven years.

Ms Gandhi helped the party to revive its electoral fortunes and led it to winning back-to-back national elections in 2004 and 2009.

She stepped down from the party chief position in 2017 in the run-up to the 2019 general elections and handed the baton to her son, Rahul, but returned as the interim chief in 2019 after the electoral drubbing in the national elections that year.

Mr Gandhi stepped down from the post in 2019 and has firmly refused to return as the party president, despite pressure from a section of Congress leaders.

He is currently leading a foot march to connect with Indians across the country before the 2024 general elections.

“For the first time visibly one can see there are proper elections … we don’t see this kind of election being held in other political parties,” Sanjay Kumar, political analyst and co-director of Lokniti, a research programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, told The National.

“It will have a very limited impact in mobilising support and at least the kind of criticism the party was facing from BJP and others that it was run by Gandhi family will mellow down, at least there would be some defence,” he said.

Contenders

Mr Kharge, 80, is a veteran parliamentarian from southern Karnataka state. He was born into a poor Dalit family, formerly known as untouchables, and started as a student leader.

He joined the party in 1969 and experienced an extremely fast rise through its ranks. He is known to be a grass roots politician and a Gandhi “loyalist”.

Mr Tharoor, 66, is a parliamentarian from neighbouring Kerala state and one of the most erudite politicians in the country.

India's senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor files his nomination papers for the party's presidency. EPA

Born in London, Mr Tharoor formerly served as a diplomat, even becoming under secretary general of the UN. He has also written several books.

He was first to declare his intention to run for the elections while Mr Kharge’s nomination came after Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot backed out, amid discontent in the state party unit.

While the Gandhis have reiterated a neutral stance, Mr Kharge is seen as the favourite and the “unofficial candidate”, with a large number of senior leaders backing him.

Despite contrasting backgrounds and demeanours, both candidates have said that they look forward to working together for the party, regardless of the results.

“I am confident. The fate of the Congress Party is in the hands of party workers,” Mr Tharoor said.

“The odds have been stacked against us, as the party leaders and establishment are overwhelming with the other candidate.”

Updated: October 18, 2022, 1:15 PM
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