India’s main opposition Congress Party is preparing to choose a new leader after Rahul Gandhi stepped down as president in the wake of his party’s crushing defeat in the country’s recent elections.
A scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, the 49-year-old confirmed his resignation in a tweet on Wednesday, ending weeks of speculation.
“It is an honor for me to serve the Congress Party, whose values and ideals have served as the lifeblood of our beautiful nation. I owe the country and my organization a debt of tremendous gratitude and love,” Gandhi tweeted alongside a four-page letter.
The outgoing president took responsibility for the loss in the election in April and May, adding: “Accountability is critical for the future growth of our party. It is for this reason that I have resigned as Congress President.
“Many of my colleagues suggested that I nominate the next Congress President. While it is important for someone new to lead our party, it would not be correct for me to select that person … I trust the party will make the best decision regarding who can lead us with courage, love and fidelity,” he continued.
Inevitable path to politics
Born in 1970, Gandhi is the son of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and former president of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi.
His grandmother Indira Gandhi was India’s first female leader, and his great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the country’s founding PM. His grandmother was assassinated while in office and his father was killed by a bomb blast while he was campaigning in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Gandhi entered politics in 2004, when he was elected to the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, from the Amethi constituency in northern Uttar Pradesh state, a family bastion with the seat being held by both his father and mother.
In subsequent years, he moved up the Congress Party’s hierarchy, becoming vice president in 2013. He was sworn in as president in December 2017, replacing his mother.
The May 2019 elections brought an end to the Congress hold over Amethi. Gandhi lost to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Smriti Irani by a margin of just over 55,000 votes. Instead, he was elected to parliament from Wayanad in southern Kerala state.
The overall results of the 2019 polls dealt a sharp blow to the party, which won just 52 seats compared to the BJP’s massive 303 seats. To win, a party needs 272 elected seats out of 543 in the Lok Sabha.
The result marked the Congress Party’s second-worst showing ever in a general election.
Polarized election campaign
In 2014, when Gandhi was first made the face of the party’s campaign during the national elections, it suffered its worst-ever electoral loss, winning just 44 seats to the 282 of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP.
The 2019 results ended a lengthy polarized election campaign. The BJP portrayed its incumbent as a staunch nationalist with roots in the Hindu right-wing movement. The Congress Party meanwhile focused its campaign on what the party said were Modi’s failures to deliver on the pledges made in 2014, primarily on the economy.
As an alternative, the Congress Party promised minimum income guarantee for poor Indians and said it would work to protect India’s diversity in the face of threats from divisive right-wing Hindus.
“We fought a strong and dignified election. Our campaign was one of brotherhood, tolerance and respect for all of India’s people, religions and communities,” Gandhi’s letter read.
“My fight has never been a simple battle for political power. I have no hatred or anger towards the BJP but every living cell in my body instinctively resists their idea of India…Where they see differences, I see similarity. Where they see hatred, I see love. What they fear, I embrace.”
In his letter, Gandhi also criticized the BJP for “systematically crushing the voice of the Indian people.”
“We didn’t fight a political party in the 2019 election. Rather, we found the entire machinery of the Indian state, every institution of which was marshalled against the opposition…Our democracy has been fundamentally weakened. There is a real danger that from now on, elections will go from being a determinant of India’s future to a mere ritual.”
“The Indian nation must unite to reclaim and resuscitate our institutions. The instrument of this resuscitation will be the Congress party. To achieve this important task, the Congress Party must radically transform itself. Today the BJP is systematically crushing the voice of the Indian people. It is the duty of the Congress Party to defend these voices,” the letter continued.
Gandhi ended his letter, writing he would “continue to fight for the ideals of the Congress Party with all my strength” and that he would be available to offer his “services, input or advice.”
“I was born a Congressman, this party has always been with me and is my life’s blood and forever that way it shall remain,” the letter ended.