India Insight

Why Rahul Gandhi stepped into the spotlight

January 20, 2013

The Congress has for a long time acknowledged Rahul Gandhi as heir apparent and several party members had openly said that he is their leader. Which means his appointment on Saturday as the party’s vice president — a post just below that of Congress chief and Rahul’s mother Sonia — was in many ways just a matter of finding him a suitable title.

So why should it matter?

One reason for Gandhi’s long-awaited promotion was to energise the party for a round of state elections in the run-up to the national elections in 2014. The Congress remains a party which derives its charisma from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and party workers openly swoon over the family. News of Gandhi’s appointment was greeted with fireworks and proclamations by party leaders of brighter days ahead.

Congress leader RPN Singh said this would be a “game changer” which would infuse “new vigour” in the party.

The focus on Gandhi’s youth — at 42, he’s still young compared to most of India’s politicians — also marks a generational shift in Congress leadership, one that could see younger leaders getting more say in party matters.

“The Congress party will be forward looking, progressive, youth oriented and the participation of young people in the Congress and national politics will increase manifold,” said Sachin Pilot, corporate affairs minister and at 35, one of the party’s young brigade.

In his new role, the reticent and largely untested scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family will be more accountable to his party’s fortunes and the people. He will now have to demonstrate “moral legitimacy” and earn “respect and credibility”, social scientist Yogendra Yadav said on a televised panel discussion.

Before that can happen, the No. 2 man in the Congress will have to make himself more accessible. Gandhi will also have to make his views known on important issues, something which he has avoided in the past.

With Gandhi now almost certain to lead the Congress in the 2014 elections, he would need fresh ideas to woo the young voter and the increasingly assertive middle class, who are not so enamoured by his surname.

By accepting the vice president’s post, Rahul Gandhi has finally decided to take on a national role and take decisions which could make or break his party’s chances of returning to power. The question is — what tricks does he have up his sleeve?

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