Congress, in power for the last decade, is struggling in opinion polls ahead of elections due by May, with a string of corruption scandals and a reputation for poor governance engulfing its administration.
“The Congress party president declared that the next election campaign will be led by Rahul Gandhi,” senior party leader Janardan Dwidedi said on Thursday after meeting Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother, party head and one of India’s most powerful figures.
Congress delegates will formally choose the 43-year-old heir of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty as campaign leader, in the hope that the charisma of the family can still bring in votes. His mother Sonia is widely expected to remain party chief.
He will not be prime ministerial candidate, in line with his party’s tradition of naming leaders only after poll victories. Congress also hopes this will avoid a direct presidential-style campaign against the charismatic Hindu nationalist opposition leader Narendra Modi.
Gandhi has launched moves to clean up the 128-year-old Congress party and stem its slide, including asking for the right to name at least 100 of the party candidates to the 543-member parliament as a way to ditch many of the old guard.
“Changes… will be substantial,” Sachin Pilot, corporate affairs minister and a star in Gandhi’s team, told Reuters.
Critics say Gandhi depends on his family name for power, is a lightweight and has barely registered his presence in parliament despite being a member for the last decade.
“It is only in a personality and family-dominated set-up like the Congress that he can be nominated as the unquestioned supremo,” said Arun Jaitley, a senior leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Nehru-Gandhi family has dominated politics in the world’s biggest democracy ever since his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his stirring “tryst with destiny” speech on the eve of independence from Britain in 1947.
The assassinations of prime ministers Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, in 1984 and her son Rajiv in 1991 added an air of tragedy to the clan. Rahul is the son of Rajiv Gandhi.
Gandhi is a vice-president of Congress and was in charge of the party’s campaign in state elections in 2013, in which it fared disastrously.
The Hindu nationalist BJP won three of five state assembly contests and its leader Modi remains the clear front-runner thanks to pledges of decisive leadership to revive economic growth that under Congress fell to its slowest pace in a decade.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conceded the government had failed to create manufacturing jobs, control inflation and combat corruption. He said he would step down and strongly suggested the reins be handed over to Gandhi.
Gandhi has in recent months tried to style himself as a maverick fighting corruption. But the new Aam Aadmi (Common Man’s) Party (AAP), which formed the government in Delhi state after local elections last month, appears to have the lock on the anti-corruption and clean governance vote.
Indians from students to business executives are flocking to the party, inspired by its promise to clean up politics and the symbols of power that ordinary people have come to detest.
“Every establishment party is going to hurt,” said Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, a Congress strategist.
Gandhi ditched the party corporate jet and travelled on a campaign tour this week by a budget airline. Barely 20 people greeted him at the airport, a change from the usual sea of fawning partymen bussed in to drape him in garlands.
That was in line with his instructions, but old Congress hands say it’s hard to change a party that has ruled for nearly 55 out of 67 years since India gained independence.
Tech entrepreneur R. K. Misra, tapped by Gandhi to energise the youth wing of the Congress, said Gandhi’s lack of proven success in elections was a clear drawback.
Now, with the party fighting with its back to the wall, Gandhi may have a chance. “He can say ‘Now you let me run the battle the way I want.’ He’s going to retire the old generals,” said Misra.