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Rahul Gandhi was declared president-elect of the Congress party on Monday. He will officially take over the reins on Saturday, two days before counting of votes for the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh assembly polls and amid anticipation that he would not only ring changes in the hierarchy but also reshape its ideological moorings. Among the younger leadership of the Congress, the swift action that Rahul Gandhi took to suspend senior Mani Shankar Aiyar is pointed to as the difference between a “vice-president and the president”. Rahul Gandhi’s associates, most of whom are in their 30s and early-40s, say they have always known him to be a determined and decisive leader and it will be more in evidence now that he holds the top job. National Conference leader Omar Abdullah, who has known Rahul Gandhi closely, tweeted after Aiyar was suspended from the party on Thursday: “If anyone had doubts about Rahul’s willingness to take quick and decisive action, today should put those doubts to rest. He has handled the ‘neech’ fiasco like a leader.” This wasn’t always so. In September 2013, Rahul Gandhi had pulled up his sleeves to publicly shred the copy of an ordinance that the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government had proposed to negate a Supreme Court order on disqualifying convicted legislators. He was then ridiculed for insulting Singh and betraying brazenness thought to be typical of a “prince”. Of late, he has not only been consistent in his political attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but has also been more consultative in his decision making. Whatever the outcome of the Gujarat polls, entrusting former Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot to manage the polls has been a masterstroke. Unlike the Uttar Pradesh polls, where Gehlot faced much interference from other leaders, Rahul Gandhi backed Gehlot to the hilt, including when leaders in the state unit complained of being marginalised, or heavyweights such as Shankersinh Vaghela were cut to size and Ahmed Patel’s role in ticket distribution constricted. Another much-anticipated development that some in the Congress talk about is the return of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Lok Sabha member Varun Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi’s first cousin, to the Congress fold. Varun Gandhi would be an asset for the party in Uttar Pradesh where it hopes to revive itself, a Congress source said. But party sources rule out any large-scale ‘purge’ of the older guard.
There’re several from the old guard likely to be accommodated, while many among the younger lot set to get more prominence. Gehlot, after his success in making a moribund Congress put up a challenging fight in Gujarat, is set to emerge as a key leader in the party. The Congress would now need to prepare for assembly elections in Karnataka in April, and in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan by the end of 2018.A less-noticed development has been an effort to take the Congress reinvent itself in the imagination of the people as a party that continues to represent the ideals of the freedom movement. The party’s election manifesto in Gujarat has been the product of extensive consultations with all sections of the Gujarati society, and attempts to root itself in “Gandhian-Ambedkarite” politics and economy. The manifesto speaks of “swaraj” and bottom up approach for development and constitutionalism to be kept at the centre of discussions and not pseudo-nationalism. Interestingly, it recognises that “people should stand up to injustice” through ‘andolan’, or peoples’ movements. In his speeches, Rahul Gandhi has spoken of the importance of the MSME sector for generating growth, and criticised policies that “benefit only a handful of big industrialists”. On Monday, as the Congress announced that Rahul Gandhi has been elected unopposed, Congress leaders from across the country congratulated him. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said the party would see a revival and would gain immensely by projecting Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate in the next parliamentary polls. Prime Minister Modi also congratulated Rahul Gandhi and wished him a “fruitful tenure”. However, at a public rally in Ahmedabad, the PM said the Congress was preparing to blame its defeat in Gujarat on electronic voting machines (EVMs) as part of its “Rahul bachao abhiyan” (save Rahul campaign). Rahul Gandhi will collect the certificate from the party’s central election authority on December 16. He succeeds his mother Sonia Gandhi, who was party president for a record 19 years. The party’s central election authority received a total of 89 nomination papers proposing his name for the top post, and all nomination papers were found to be valid.