India’s Congress Party poised to install Rahul Gandhi as leader

Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, right, with party Vice President and her son Rahul Gandhi, left, during the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting in New Delhi, on Monday. (AP)
Updated 20 November 2017
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India’s Congress Party poised to install Rahul Gandhi as leader

NEW DELHI: India’s grand old Congress Party is on the verge of a significant generational shift as 47-year old Rahul Gandhi looks set to become its new president.

The 132-year-old party’s chief decision-making body, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), announced on Monday that it would hold its presidential election on Dec. 16. No one is expected to challenge Gandhi for the post.

Gandhi will succeed the party’s longest-serving president, his mother Sonia, who has been its leader since 1998.

But the party’s crushing defeat in the 2014 parliamentary elections, when it won just 42 seats out of 545 in the Lower House — its lowest haul in 70 years, raised many questions about the party’s policies and its future. Its decline in popularity has been mirrored in the rise of regional parties and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Since the 2014 elections, Sonia Gandhi has maintained a low profile, allowing her son to become the face of the party.

“This is the end of an era,” a senior Congress leader told Arab News. “Sonia Gandhi has been our mainstay and with Rahul Gandhi’s elevation, the party enters a new phase of history; let’s see how it unfolds.”

Speaking after the CWC meeting, Randeep S. Surjewala, the party’s spokesperson, said: “Sonia Gandhi is our leader and mentor. She has always guided the Congress Party. Her able leadership and guidance will always be available. Not only to Rahul, but also to the thousands and thousands of party workers.”

Political pundit Rashid Kidwai, associate editor of The Telegraph and the author of “24 Akbar Road,” a book about the Congress Party, said the decision to officially install Rahul Gandhi as party leader is “a bold move.”

“It comes at a time when campaigns for the Gujarat Assembly elections are still on. Normally, a political party does not hold organizational elections when it is in the middle of an election campaign,” he explained.

He added that he suspects the party “wants to portray more gravitas to Rahul’s personality and leadership during the campaign for Gujarat elections.”

Rahul Gandhi has been getting a positive response in the election campaign in the western Indian state, which is also Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home turf. The Congress fancies its chances of victory in next month’s Gujarat elections after 22 years in opposition. And if the party performs well, it will not only be a defining moment for Rahul Gandhi but also alter the political narrative in India, which is currently more favorable for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“After facing so much adversity from his right-wing opponents, Rahul Gandhi is gaining ground and he is taken more seriously than before. He has got a firm foothold, but only time will tell whether he succeeds or not. But he has got age on his side”, said Kidwai.

However, BJP accuses the Congress of promoting dynastic politics and does not consider the young scion a credible challenger to Modi.

The Congress Party has been India’s ruling party for 50 of the 70 years since the country’s independence, and the Nehru-Gandhi family has produced three prime ministers.

“In the Congress Party, performance and capability do not matter,” said BJP spokesperson G.V.L. Narasimha Rao. “Thus, despite a disastrous track record, Rahul’s elevation was a foregone conclusion.

“The timing of the elevation, though, is curious,” he said. “It seems Sonia Gandhi wanted to pass the leadership mantle to her son before yet another impending defeat in Gujarat state, as it would have been embarrassing for the Congress to reward him after a defeat.”

Whatever the reasons behind his elevation, Rahul Gandhi has a formidable task ahead of him.


Rescued Thai football boys pray for protection at Buddhist temple

Updated 21 min 22 sec ago
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Rescued Thai football boys pray for protection at Buddhist temple

CHIANG RAI, Thailand: The Thai football boys and their coach began their first day back home with their families since they were rescued from a flooded cave with a trip to a Buddhist temple on Thursday to pray for protection from misfortunes.
The 11 boys and the coach kneeled and pressed their hands in prayer to the tune of chanting monks. They were joined by relatives and friends at the Wat Pra That Doi Wao temple, overlooking Myanmar on Thailand’s northern border.
The remaining member of the Wild Boars football team — Adul Sargon — is not a Buddhist and did not attend the ceremony, meant to extend one’s life and protect it from dangers.
The team has already said they would ordain as Buddhist novices to honor a former Thai navy SEAL diver who died in the cave while making preparations for their rescue.
On Wednesday evening, the boys and coach faced the media for the first time since their ordeal, describing their surprise at seeing two British divers rising from muddy waters in the recesses of the cave. It would be another week before they were pulled out of the Tham Luang cave.
“We weren’t sure if it was for real,” 14-year-old Adul said. “So, we stopped and listened. And it turned out to be true. I was shocked.”
In one poignant and emotional moment at the news conference, a portrait was displayed of Saman Gunan, the Thai diver who died. One of the boys, 11-year-old Chanin “Titan” Vibulrungruang, the youngest of the group, covered his eyes as if wiping away a tear.
“I feel sad. And another thing is I’m really impressed with Sgt. Sam for sacrificing his life for all 13 Wild Boars to be able to live our lives outside happily and normally,” he said. “When we found out, everyone was sad. Extremely sad, like we were the cause of this that made the sergeant’s family sad and having to face problems.”
The Wild Boars had entered the cave on June 23 for what was to be a relaxing excursion after football practice. But rain began, and water soon filled the cavern, cutting off their escape, and they huddled on a patch of dry ground deep inside the cave.
Coach Ekapol “Ake” Chanthawong said the trip was meant to last one hour, simply because “each of us wanted to see what was inside.”
When the hour was up, they were pretty deep inside and already had swum through some flooded areas in the spirit of adventure. But in turning back, he discovered the way was not at all clear, and he swam ahead to scout the route, attaching a rope to himself so the boys could pull him back if necessary.
He said he had to be pulled out.
Ekapol said he told the boys: “We cannot go out this way. We have to find another way.”
The boys told reporters of their reactions at that point.
“I felt scared. I was afraid I wouldn’t get to go home and my mom would scold me, said Mongkol Boonpiam, 13, prompting laughter.
Ekarat Wongsukchan, 14, said they decided “to calm ourselves first, to try to fix the problem and find a way out. Be calm and not shocked.”
The group had taken no food with them and survived by drinking water that dripped from the cave walls, Ekapol said, adding that all the boys knew how to swim, which had been a concern for rescuers.
Titan said he tried hard not to think about food. “When I’m starving, I don’t think of food otherwise it’d make me more hungry.”
Adul said they were digging around the spot when they heard the voices and Ekapol called for silence.
He recounted how Ekapol told them to “’quickly get down there, that’s the sound of a person, or else they’re going to pass on by,’ something like that.”
But he said his teammate holding the flashlight was scared, so Adul told him “If you’re not going to go, then I’ll go.”
“So I quickly took the flashlight, and quickly went down, and I greeted them, ‘hello,’” Adul added.
Psychologists had vetted the journalists’ questions in advance to avoid bringing up any aspects of the rescue that might disturb them. The dangers of the complicated operation, in which the boys were extracted in three separate missions with diving equipment and pulleys through the tight passageways, were not discussed.
Doctors said the 13 were physically and mentally healthy. Although they lost an average of 4 kilograms (9 pounds) during the more than two weeks they were trapped in the cave, they have since gained about 3 kilograms (6 1/2 pounds) on average since their rescue. They were treated for minor infections.
Asked what he had learned from their experience, 13-year-old Mongkol Boonpiam said he felt stronger. “I have more patience, endurance, tolerance,” he said.
Adul said it had taught him “not to live life carelessly.”
While many of the boys wanted to be pro football players when they grow up, at least four of them said they hope to become navy SEALs, so they could help others.
All expressed their apologies to their families.
“I wanted to apologize to my parents. I know that I will get yelled at by mom when I get home,” said Pornchai Kamluang, 16.
Ekarat said sheepishly he wanted to apologize to his parents because while he told them he was going to a cave, he told them the wrong one.
“I told them I was going to Tham Khun Nam,” he said. “I didn’t tell them I went to Tham Luang. So, I was wondering how they found us at the right cave.”