Rahul Gandhi sworn in as Congress president, hits out at PM Narendra Modi

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Rahul Gandhi with Congress workers after formally taking over as party president on Saturday. Photo: Sanjay K Sharma
On Saturday, 47-year-old Rahul Gandhi succeeded his mother Sonia Gandhi as the president of the Congress party at a time when India’s oldest political party is at its weakest since 1947, and by Monday, if exit polls prove to be correct, it is set to lose two more assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.

If the party faces a challenging future, the day of Rahul Gandhi officially taking over as the party chief was also one that the Congress counts as one of its most historic of the past few decades. The day also marked the anniversary of Pakistan’s surrender in the 1971 war, which India fought under the leadership of then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

At a ceremony held in the lawns of 24, Akbar Road, the national headquarters of the party, Rahul Gandhi received a certificate of his being elected the party chief. He shared the dais with an emotional and nostalgic Sonia Gandhi and former prime minister Manmohan Singh. Rahul Gandhi is the sixth member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to become Congress party chief.

Sonia Gandhi reminisced how nervous she was when she first took over as the party chief in 1998 and the personal humiliation that her son has had to suffer. Rahul Gandhi’s sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, and husband Robert Vadra watched from among the audience. After her mother’s comment on Friday that she was now retiring, Priyanka Gandhi ruled out that she would be contesting the next Lok Sabha elections from her mother’s Rae Bareli seat.

In his first speech as the Congress president, Rahul Gandhi hit at out at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Congress took India to 21st Century, but the Prime Minister (Modi) is taking us backwards, to medieval times, where people are being butchered because of who they area, beaten for what they believe and killed for what they eat,” he said.

“This is my last address to you as Congress president… Nearly 20 years ago, when I stood before you to address you for the first time as your chosen president, I was so nervous that my hands were shaking,” Sonia Gandhi said in her speech. Sonia Gandhi served as the president of the Congress party for 19 years and had taken over on March 14, 1998, at a similarly challenging time when the party was in power in four states:  Mizoram, Nagaland, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. It had also split into over a dozen factions, from Trinamool Congress in West Bengal to Tamil Maanila Congress in Tamil Nadu. Sonia Gandhi spoke of her struggles after the assassination of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, in 1984, and seven years later that of her husband, Rajiv Gandhi, and her decision to enter politics. 

Referring to several state elections that the party has lost since 2014, Sonia Gandhi said the party faces a kind of challenge that it has seldom before. “We are all witness to the daily attacks against freedom of speech and expression, against our culture of diversity, and its replacement with an atmosphere of suspicion and fear,” she said.

On Rahul Gandhi, she said her son has from childhood “borne the experience of violence, the savage personal attacks he has confronted since entering politics has served to make him a brave and stout hearted man.”

In his speech, Manmohan Singh termed the occasion “historic”. Rahul Gandhi spoke at length about current politics that is “devoid of kindness and truth”. He said politics is being used not to empower and lift people up, but to crush them. 

He said the Congress stood for the poor and challenged the existing structures of power to stand with the weak, but “the moment you announce that you stand for the poor, you are attacked and in order to defeat you, they hit you on all fronts. They lie and they distort. Those in power in India today are shaped by the very structures that keep India poor.”

“We are now being compelled to imagine that businesses can be built without harmony, that only one man, one man himself — is the voice of reason, that expertise, experience and knowledge can be cast aside for personal glory, that it is acceptable for our foreign policy to lie in tatters so that one man can feel strong, and that everything in fact is subservient to the leader’s personal image,” he said.

He said the Congress party will never back down, and stand up against forces of hate, and defend the voice of every single Indian.

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