It is the first time in the 70 years of Indian independence that leadership of the 132-year-old party has changed leadership while the incumbent party president is still alive.
Gandhi, 47, became a parliamentarian in 2004 and has been vice president of the party since 2013.
The change in leadership comes at a time when the party — which played a pivotal role in liberating the country from the British in 1947 — is facing the biggest crisis in its history.
In the 2014 parliamentary elections, Congress had its worst ever electoral performance, winning just 44 seats out of 545. The party currently rules only six out of 29 states in India.
Since 2013, the young scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family has been the subject of political derision from his opponents and from social media, where many have questioned his emotional and intellectual capability.
But Vinod Sharma, political editor of the Hindustan Times, told Arab News that public opinion of Gandhi is rapidly improving, particularly in light of Congress’s performance in the campaign for the ongoing legislative assembly election in Gujarat.
“The Gujarat election campaign has been a turning point in the career of the Congress leader,” Sharma said. “Those who used to deride him started taking him seriously for the simple reason that he has very candidly addressed issues which touch the lives of the people. His campaign was reassuring, and that has made him widely accepted.
“The challenge for Rahul Gandhi now is to set up a new team and prepare the party for electoral victory,” Sharma added. “The party is in a derelict state in many states and does not have the kind of organization that can win elections. It has to start from grassroots and move upwards.”
In his inaugural address as president of the Congress Party, Gandhi hinted he would pursue a different kind of politics than that being followed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“The prime minister is taking us backwards to medieval times, where people are being butchered because of who they are, beaten for what they believe in, and killed for what they eat,” he said.
Sharma told Arab News, “I think his speech was a mix of aggression and conciliation. By talking of dialogue with people, including the members of the BJP, Gandhi is signaling a positive approach and a new kind of politics.”
Priya Dutt, a Congress politician from Mumbai, said, “Everybody is looking at his leadership and wants him to usher in necessary changes in the party to regain lost ground.
“Congress is in the DNA of the people of India and no force can obliterate that and I hope that the new energy that Rahul Gandhi brings into the party will transform the organization,” Dutt told Arab News.
However, BJP member Shina N C, told Arab News that Gandhi’s promotion is simply “a symbol of dynasty.”
“Rahul Gandhi has nothing new to offer the people of India,” Shina said.
Before the 2019 general elections, 16 Indian states, most of them ruled by the BJP, are going to the polls.
The first challenge for Gandhi will be to wrest some of those states from his political rivals, and give momentum to his campaign for the big battle in 2019.