India’s main opposition Congress party in throes of crisis

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Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi

FILE-In this May 21, 2019 file photo, United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, center, with her son and the then Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi, pays homage to former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on his death anniversary in New Delhi, India. Sonia Gandhi took back the reins of the party from her son Rahul on Saturday. She’ll be interim president until the party elects a new leader. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)

NEW DELHI (AP) — By appointing Sonia Gandhi interim president, India’s oldest political party seems to have sent a message that it can’t survive without the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Political analysts say the main opposition Congress party lost an opportunity to rid itself of an image of being driven by one particular family when Sonia Gandhi took back the party’s reins Saturday from her son Rahul, whom she had anointed as her successor in 2017.

Rahul Gandhi quit last month after the party’s crushing defeat in recent national elections, and his mother will be interim president until the party elects a new leader.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party won 303 of 542 seats in the lower house of Parliament in the April-May elections, while the Congress party won just 52.

Several names from outside the Gandhi family came up for the top party job. But the party fell back on the Nehru-Gandhi family as several party leaders and workers left the party for greener pastures.

“It would have made sense if there was a powerful independent president,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst. “Gandhis could have been part of the party leadership and its electoral mascot.”

“It’s a retrograde step. It reflects very poorly on the Congress party leaders,” he said.

Seema Mustafa, another political analyst, sees a bleak future for the Congress party “when it can’t even think of another person out of the family.”

She also said the move was a big setback for India’s overall opposition, which is completely scattered. “There is not a single leader who can coalesce opposition groups — a terrible thing for a parliamentary democracy,” Mustafa said.

Several party leaders and workers defected to the Bharatiya Janata Party after the elections because of the allure of the BJP, and also because they saw little future in the Congress party, Mukhopadhyay said.

After the death of her husband and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi revived the Congress party and led it to victory as the party’s president in consecutive national elections in 2004 and 2009. But the party lost power to Modi’s BJP in 2014.

Analysts expect a clamor among party loyalists to appoint her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as her brother’s successor.

In January, Rahul Gandhi inducted Vadra, 47, into politics as a party general secretary months before the elections.

She had in the past helped her mother and brother campaign in their constituencies in northern Uttar Pradesh state. But the party found both brother and sister hopelessly wanting in April-May national elections.

In addition to his father, Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother Indira Gandhi and great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru also served as prime minister.

Despite this latest setback, Mukhopadhyay doesn’t believe Rahul Gandhi’s political career, which began in 2004, has come to an end.

“I don’t see him hanging his boots,” he said. “I see him playing an important role within the party. In what capacity, I don’t know. But he will be an important player in politics.”

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