India Congress Party Names Rahul Gandhi No. 2
By RAJESH ROY and ROMIT GUHA, NEW DELHI (WSJ): India’s Congress party has named Rahul Gandhi as the party’s vice president, giving a clear indication that the scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty would be the party’s prime ministerial candidate in the federal elections next year.
The appointment of Mr. Gandhi—son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and party President Sonia Gandhi—as the party’s No. 2 sets the stage for a likely face-off with Narendra Modi, chief minister of the western state of Gujarat and a top contender within the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party for the country’s highest executive post, ahead of federal polls due before May 2014.
“This [the appointment] was something long-awaited by the young cadre of the party. The Congress Working Committee approved his elevation unanimously,” Congress party spokesman Janardan Dwivedi told reporters at a meeting in the desert city of Jaipur late Saturday. The CWC is the party’s highest decision-making body.
Top party leaders have been in Jaipur since Friday to chalk out strategies in the lead up to the 2014 elections.
Before his latest position, Mr. Gandhi was a general secretary in the party and headed its youth wing. He had been reluctant to take on a more prominent official role in government despite being repeatedly asked by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but the party in November named him a part of the election coordination panel for the federal polls, giving early indications of his emerging stature in what is known as the Grand Old Party of India.
“I have learned a lot from my seniors in the last eight years and will continue to do so. Together, we can change the country,” Mr. Gandhi told reporters.
News of Mr. Gandhi’s promotion prompted celebrations across Jaipur and parts of the national capital New Delhi. The party’s so-called young brigade burst crackers and distributed sweets. Mr. Singh, who was present at the meet, congratulated Mr. Gandhi.
Many Congress leaders view Mr. Gandhi as crucial to the party’s future success and as a potential prime minister. His grandmother was Indira Gandhi, a former prime minister, and his great-grandfather was Jawaharlal Nehru, who led the country for almost two decades after independence.
Sanjay Kumar, a political analyst with the Center for Study of Developing Societies, said the party had no choice but to name Mr. Gandhi as it needed a “face which is somewhat recognized” across India, and because Ms. Gandhi’s health problems could force her to take a back seat in the coming elections. Last year, Ms. Gandhi underwent surgery in the U.S. for an undisclosed medical condition.
Mr. Kumar noted that Mr. Gandhi has built experience in the past two years after leading the party’s unsuccessful state election campaigns in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
But bearing in mind his lack of experience in government, he has been named No. 2 so he has his mother to guide him, Mr. Kumar said.
“But we have to wait and see if Congress names Rahul the prime ministerial candidate before it actually wins the polls, or is in a position to form a government.”
Congress and its allies won the last two national elections, in 2004 and 2009, but had to form coalitions to govern. Though many observers expect the party to again emerge with the most number of seats in 2014, they predict its tally will be much lower than the 206 seats won in 2009, giving its coalition parties—many of them regional organizations—even more sway in national government.
The BJP brushed aside the promotion. “The Congress party may be excited, but the country is not,” Prakash Javedkar, spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party, said.
Ravishankar Prasad, a senior BJP leader, said the Congress party’s latest decision won’t turn into an election-winning move. “Rampant corruption, suffering of common people, inflation and India becoming insecure will be the deciding factors for 2014 polls.”
The federal elections—and about 10 state polls before that—come at a difficult time for the Congress party, amid slowing economic growth and corruption allegations against the government, which it denies, and high inflation. Also, the gang rape and death of a 23-year-old woman last month in Delhi—which sparked national outrage—has brought law and order into focus.
The party, though, has a nationwide network and is helped by the name recognition of the Gandhi family.
Mr. Gandhi has been vocal on issues such as land rights for farmers and tribal populations and drug use among youth. It is unknown what he thinks about the government’s welfare spending since 2009, which helped get the party get re-elected but has added to national debt.
In an appearance at a Congress rally last November, Mr. Gandhi stood behind the recent economic overhauls of Mr. Singh’s government. They include allowing foreign supermarkets to invest in India for the first time.