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Rahul Gandhi took over as the Congress party's president on Saturday, carrying the baton forward from his mother and the party's longest-serving chief, Sonia Gandhi, who has been keeping unwell in recent years. With the elevation done and dusted, the Gandhi scion faces several key challenges ahead as the Grand Old Party continues to struggle against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Gandhi's elevation comes just two days before the counting of votes in the crucial Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections, which his party is projected to lose by various exit polls. Gandhi, 47, will be the sixth member of the Nehru-Gandhi family to take the top position of the 132-year-old party. Here are the challenges ahead of Rahul Gandhi: 1) Result of Gujarat and Himachal polls loom over the party: Rahul could have to face electoral defeat just two days after ascending to his party's top post. PM Modi's ruling BJP will sweep the election in his home state of Gujarat, surveys showed on Thursday, shaking off the most serious challenge yet from a combined Opposition. As reported earlier, three separate television exit polls at the close of the final round of voting on Thursday showed the BJP winning more than 100 seats in the 182-member state house, well clear of the half-way mark of 92 required to rule. Congress will win 70-74 seats, the polls showed, better than in the past but not enough to oust the BJP from power. Another exit poll, conducted by a Today’s Chanakya group, gave the BJP a two-thirds victory. Soon after voting ended in the second and final phase of the election, an exit poll gave the BJP 115 of the total 182 seats and the Congress 65. Another exit poll gave the ruling dispensation 108 seats and 74 to the Opposition Congress. The Times Now-VMR exit poll predicted 115 seats for the BJP, 64 for the Congress, and the remaining for other parties. The Republic-C Voter exit poll gave the BJP 108 seats and the Congress 74. A poll on NDTV said the BJP would get 112 seats and the Congress 70. Clear majority for BJP in Gujarat: Exit polls The exit polls also predicted that the BJP would wrest Himachal Pradesh from the Congress. As reported earlier, all survey agencies, barring ABP-CSDS, predicted a sweep for the BJP in Himachal Pradesh, where the elections were held on November 9. The ABP-CSDS survey predicted a BJP victory, with the Congress running it close in the 68-member Assembly. Exit polls predict BJP victory in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh The actual votes will be counted on Monday and exit polls and other surveys have often gone wrong. The Congress party said it was too quick to call the election based on exit polls. However, if the exit polls turn out to be accurate, the new Congress president will have gotten off to a less than auspicious start. 2) Modi remains quite popular: Rahul also has to contend with the fact that Prime Minister Modi remains quite popular with the populace. Despite economic disruption after note ban, Indians are increasingly more upbeat about PM Modi. Nearly nine of 10 people have a favourable opinion of him, finds a study. As reported in November this year, the PM remains by far the most popular national figure, with his favourable ratings 30 points higher than those of Rahul Gandhi. These findings are based on a Pew Research Center survey of 2,464 respondents from February 21 to March 10. (Click here to see all the charts that show how popular PM Modi still is) Further, according to an online survey by the Times Group, PM Modi continues to be the country's most popular leader, with no competition in sight. According to the survey, despite his government's demonetisation drive, the teething issues related to the Goods and Services Tax roll-out, and the often heated campaign in Gujarat, over three-quarters of respondents said they will vote for Modi if the Lok Sabha elections were held today.
The survey was conducted in nine languages across 10 Times Group media properties. The three-part survey was conducted online over 72 hours between December 12 and 15 with over half a million responses.3) With Gujarat and Himachal behind him, Rahul has to lead Congress through crucial polls in 2018: While the outcome of the Gujarat polls would be interpreted in terms of Rahul Gandhi's ability as a "campaigner and vote-getter", their result is out of anybody's hands. However, 2018 has its own share of Assembly polls that Gandhi will be leading his party through, this time as the Congress chief. Challenges for Rahul: Revamping party set-up, electoral battles before 2019 polls As reported earlier, the next round of Assembly polls in 2018 -- first in Karnataka and later in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh -- will be very crucial for Gandhi in order to build the momentum to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha polls. The state elections, with BJP as the key rival, will also be the first major polls directly under Rahul Gandhi's charge as party chief. Assembly polls will also be held early next year in Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Tripura. 4) Picking CM candidates and bringing about unity: Within the party, Gandhi has to take several decisions, including whether to project chief ministerial candidates in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and who they are going to be. Challenges for Rahul: Revamping party set-up, electoral battles before 2019 polls As reported earlier, bringing about unity in faction-ridden state units and striking the right balance between the "old guard" and the younger aspirants will be his other challenges. The Congress is ruling now in five states and a Union Territory only and a possible loss in Gujarat as well as in Karnataka next year would further put a squeeze on its chances of staging a comeback at the Centre in 2019. 5) Evolving a new strategy after a string of electoral defeats: The challenges for Rahul Gandhi include fostering a new energy and enthusiasm in the Congress and evolving a new strategy to galvanise the party after a string of electoral losses since the 2014 Lok Sabha debacle. The Congress has to work hard at the grassroots to take on the relentless election machine of Modi-led BJP and party chief Amit Shah. Gandhi has to take a call on forging a larger Opposition alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls under a "collective leadership" or projecting himself as the alternative against Modi with the support of different parties. He was the face of Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Another major challenge for Rahul Gandhi is to revive the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, the state that sends the largest contingent of 80 MPs to Parliament. Gandhi has twice led the party's campaign in the Assembly polls but has come a cropper. The results of the recent local body polls in Amethi and Rae Bareli, the Lok Sabha constituencies of Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi, have not been flattering for his image. Congress has shrunk electorally, being now the fourth player in states such as Bihar, and third in states such as West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu, as also Delhi. In the polls held to various Assemblies since 2014, it has largely finished third or fourth. Sections, which were strongly with the party, including Dalits, have drifted away. Congress' only major success since its debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls has been Punjab, while the BJP, in comparison, has tremendously expanded its footprint by winning states it had never held in the past. The BJP is making efforts to expand its base in states it has been weak in, including West Bengal, Kerala, Odisha, and Tamil Nadu.