New Congress chief Rahul Gandhi promises to counter BJP’s hate politics with love.
New Delhi: The 137-year-old Indian National Congress finally made a generational shift on Saturday with party president Sonia Gandhi passing on the mantle to her 47-year-old son, Rahul Gandhi, once referred to as the “reluctant prince”.
Mr Gandhi, the sixth member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to lead the political party, takes charge at a time when the party is facing one of its worst crises, with the BJP occupying the centrestage of national and state politics.
The results of his first big test of popularity will be out on Monday when counting is scheduled for Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections.
Mr Gandhi, the MP from Amethi, took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP with renewed vigour while campaigning in Gujarat. Handing over charge of the party to her son, outgoing party president Mrs Gandhi said, “In his political life, he faced vicious personal attacks which have made him more fearless. I am proud of his endurance and determination. I am fully confident that he will lead the party with courage and dedication.”
“Relentless personal attacks have made Rahul a stronger person,” she said, but then added, “Rahul is my son. So I do not think to praise him is appropriate for me.”
Comparing the present situation of the Congress with the time when she took charge, Mrs Gandhi said, “At that time, as far as I remember, we only had three state governments and were far from a government at the Centre. Meeting this challenge was not a marvel achieved by any one individual.”
Mr Gandhi took charge as the 87th president of the Congress amidst celebrations and cheer. His sister Priyanka Gandhi, her husband Robert Vadra, former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and other senior party leaders were in attendance.
In his maiden speech as Congress president, Mr Gandhi again lashed out at Mr Modi and accused him of taking the country back to the “medieval times”.
“The Congress took India into the 21st century, while the Prime Minister today is taking us backwards, to a medieval past where people are butchered because of who they are, beaten for what they believe and killed for what they eat. This ugly violence shames us in the world. Our country, whose philosophy and history is born out of love and compassion, is tarnished by such horror and no amount of hugs can repair the damage done to this great country of ours.”
Once again pitching for a civil political discourse, Mr Gandhi called BJP members his “brothers and sisters”.
Mr Gandhi said that the BJP wants a Congress-free India, but the philosophy of the Congress is that of inclusion, even for the BJP.
Picking up from his “power is poison” statement in 2013 when he was appointed Congress vice-president, Mr Gandhi attacked the BJP and said, “These regressive forces don’t win because they are right, they do not win because they stand on the side of what is correct. They win because they are powerful. Their power is manipulative and distortive and it stains everything it touches.”
He accused the BJP of fighting for itself while maintaining that the Congress fights for everyone.
Calling himself an idealist, Mr Gandhi said that his politics is different from what is being practiced by the BJP.
“Today, politics is not being used in the service of the people, it is being used to crush them, not to lift them up. The BJP is spreading hatred and communalism. They break, while we unite. They ignite the fire, we put it out. They break, we join,” he said.
Mr Gandhi also tried to allay the fears of the party’s old guard by terming the Congress as the “grand old and young party”.
On his first day as party president, Mr Gandhi also played the nationalism card. To pay paid homage to Indian soldiers who had made the supreme sacrifice in the 1971 war with Pakistan, he tweeted, “On #VijayDiwas, we salute the indomitable spirit and sacrifice of the martyrs of 1971 War. Let each one of us remember the unfathomable valour of our soldiers, who defend India’s freedom every day.”
Mr Gandhi, who takes over from Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the longest serving Congress president for 19 years, has work cut out for him. The Congress is in power in just five states, compared to the BJP’s 14. Assembly elections are due in 16 states before the national election in 2019. The outcome of these elections will decide the nature and strength of Mr Gandhi’s presidency, and the future of the Congress Party.