NEW DELHI (AP) – India’s main opposition party on Wednesday elected Mallikarjun Kharge as its new president in a contest in which the Nehru-Gandhi family, who have led the party for more than two decades, did not participate.
The party, which has long touted its secular politics, has struggled to regain support since it was defeated in 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party.
Kharge, 80, from the southern state of Karnataka, was supported by the party’s top leaders. His challenger, Shashi Tharoor, 66, spent nearly 30 years at the United Nations before joining the Congress party in 2009.
Kharge received more than 80% of the vote, local media reported.
Interim party chairman Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi, announced last month that none of the family would seek leadership of the party at this time.
Their decision to recruit a new leader ahead of important upcoming elections reflects the party’s need to shed its image as a family dynasty, analysts said. Since Modi came to power, Congress has suffered crushing defeats in a slew of national and state polls. Rahul Gandhi resigned as party chairman after dismal results in the 2019 national elections.
Kharge was seen as the favorite of the Nehru-Gandhi family, while Tharoor emerged as an outsider championing change within the party.
“It’s definitely not one of the family, but you can’t expect such a strong presence from the Gandhi family to just go away — their presence will remain central,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a professor at Ashoka University.
Both the family and the party are at a pivotal moment, he added, as they face their most formidable competition to date from Modi’s ruling party. “The question is, can they turn the tide? How will the party rediscover its message? That’s the real challenge’, says Rangarajan.
Tharoor previously complained to the party’s electoral authority that the contest was unfair as some senior party leaders had urged deputies to vote for Kharge. But on Wednesday, Tharoor congratulated Kharge after the results were announced. “It is a great honor, a huge responsibility to be President of Congress. I wish Mallikarjun Kharge every success in that task,” the Press Trust of India news agency quoted him as saying.
The party has been led by non-relatives in the past, but Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have been at the helm since 1998.
Modi has regularly denounced the Congress party’s family dynasty.
The family has produced three of India’s 15 prime ministers since independence, starting with Rahul Gandhi’s great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first. Two of them – his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and father, Rajiv Gandhi – were murdered. The party ruled India for more than 60 years after India gained independence from British colonialism in 1947.
Rahul Gandhi will spend the next four months on a 3,500 kilometer hike through Indian towns and villages as he attempts to rejuvenate the party and gain popular support ahead of the elections in Himachal Pradesh state and Modi’s home state of Gujarat. The results are likely to influence the country’s next national elections, which will take place in 2024.
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