Dubai: On the afternoon of October 31, 1984, slain prime minister Indira Gandhi’s body was lying in a Delhi hospital. On the eighth floor of the same building, her grieving son was pulled inside a washroom by the cabinet secretary.
PC Alexander’s message was brief — Rajiv Gandhi was going to be the next prime minister.
President Gyani Zail Singh was flying back from Yemen and Rajiv was sworn in at 6.30pm that day. He was just 40 and became the youngest prime minister of India.
Over three decades later, his 47-year-old son Rahul is taking over as the head of Indian National Congress, a party led by his great grandfather Nehru, grandmother Indira, father Rajiv and mother Sonia who ruled for 19 years till today.
Barring a few exceptions, the Congress — which has led most governments since 1947 — was always headed by members of Nehru-Gandhi family.
Critics question Rahul’s ability to run the Congress and challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the next general elections in 2019.
Moreover, his family has been accused of treating the party as a family-owned business and promoting dynasty politics, a culture not unique to the Congress.
His election comes at a time when the Congress stands decimated in vast swaths of India’s political landscape.
The Congress’ rival Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, an outfit born in 1980, rules in 18 out of 29 states and the President, the Prime Minister, and the Vice-President are from the BJP.
The most immediate challenge before Rahul is elections in Gujarat where Modi’s BJP is seeking re-election for the fifth time.
The state goes to polls on December 9 and 14 and a poor show will be devastating for both Rahul and his party.
A convincing BJP victory there will embolden Modi and his re-election in 2019 will be a done deal.
While Rajiv took over Congress in extraordinary circumstances, he had no challenger within the party and the opposition was weak.
On the other hand, Rahul faces a hugely popular rival in Modi and the stranglehold of veterans on his own party.