India’s opposition Congress party likely to elect first non-Gandhi president in 25 years

India's opposition Congress party is likely to elect a new president outside the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in nearly 25 years in an effort to revive its electoral fortune and revamp the outfit ahead of the 2024 general polls.

The Indian National Congress (INC), which was formed 137 years ago during India's struggle for independence from British colonial rule, has been in power in the country for the most number of years since 1947.

However, the “grand old party” suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of prime minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the past two consecutive general elections.

Since the last defeat in 2019, several senior leaders have quit Congress citing a "leadership crisis". The call for a fresh election was made after Rahul Gandhi, the son of interim president Sonia Gandhi, stepped down after the poll debacle.

Ms Gandhi, the widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, led the party for nearly two decades until 2017. The members of the Gandhi family have refused to stand in the party election.

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN diplomat and lawmaker from the southern state of Kerala, was the first person to file the nomination for the party's top post on Friday.

Mr Tharoor, 66, who has been a dissenter and vocal against the concentration of power with just the Gandhi family, said it was a "friendly contest" between colleagues.

He added: "Those who would like to continue the status quo would not be inclined to vote for me because I represent change, a different approach, and a vision to take the party forward in a different way as for some years we've been suffering setbacks."

Challenging him is a veteran politician and leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament), Mallikarjun Kharge.

The 80-year-old lawmaker from Karnataka state and a staunch Gandhi family loyalist filed his nomination supported by some of the top members of the party.

"All leaders, workers, delegates and ministers who came in support of me today, encouraged me, I thank them. We'll see what the results are... hopeful that I win," he said.

Sources in the party told The Independent that Mr Kharge's name was proposed by a group of top party men for his years-long association with the Gandhi family.

Cut outs of Sonia Gandhi (L), her son Rahul Gandhi (C) and daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a Congress rally (EPA)
Cut outs of Sonia Gandhi (L), her son Rahul Gandhi (C) and daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a Congress rally (EPA)

"He is a grassroot leader and a Dalit. Mr Kharge has done way more in keeping the party together during times of crisis than others who just cry foul. State leaders have been asked to ensure that he becomes the next party president," said a member of the Congress, who did not want to be named as he is not officially authorised to talk to the media.

India’s 200 million Dalits, formerly untouchables, are placed on the lowest rung of an ancient caste hierarchy.

The third candidate in the fray is former Jharkhand minister JKN Tripathi.

While the election is touted to be a positive effort to unite the party after a series of defections, analysts fear that it is too late with the next general election less than two years away.

“The outcome of the election will have an impact on the next Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) elections. Once the Gandhi family steps down from the top role, the Congress party may not have an important place in the opposition alliance,” said Ramu Manivannan, professor and head of the department of politics at the University of Madras.

He added: “It is unlikely that anyone aside from the Gandhi family can inspire the opposition. Although the previous leadership was weak, no one can fill the vacuum and rebuild the party.”

“The current crisis within the Congress favours the BJP.”

The election will be held on 17 October and the counting of votes will be taken up a day later. Over 9,000 Congress party members are expected to cast their votes in the poll.

Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi has embarked on a five-month-long Unity March across the country to connect with locals and expand the party’s bases ahead of the general elections.