India’s Congress elects first non-Gandhi chief in 24 years

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NEW DELHI, Oct 19 (Reuters) – India’s opposition Congress party on Wednesday declared veteran leader Mallikarjun Kharge its new chief, the first person from outside the influential Nehru-Gandhi family to hold the beleaguered party’s presidency in 24 years.

The Congress, which held an election for the post on Monday, hopes to revive its flagging fortunes with a new leader after losing two general elections and control of some state assemblies to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Despite the change at the top of the Congress, the BJP, which advocates a hard-right, nationalist stance, appears to be in a strong position to win a third successive term in a general election due by 2024.

The 137-year-old Congress, which helped win India’s independence from colonial power Britain and then dominated politics for decades, has long championed a secular polity.

Kharge, an 80-year-old from the lowest rung of India’s caste system, is seen as a Gandhi family loyalist. He overwhelmingly won the party vote, defeating former U.N. diplomat Shashi Tharoor.

Kharge was due to address media later on Wednesday.

Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research think tank, said the change at the top was a significant step for the party.

“This symbolic change of the president is a very powerful moment for the Congress,” Sircar said.

“Its desire to change will have to reflect in organisational change on the ground.”

Disgruntled senior party members have in recent months challenged the party’s working under its interim president, Sonia Gandhi, who took charge after her son, Rahul Gandhi, resigned following the party’s loss to the BJP in a 2019 general election.

Rahul Gandhi, speaking shortly before the party election result was announced, told reporters the new leader would call the shots.

“The Congress president is the supreme authority in the Congress party … Every member reports to them.”

Reporting by Shivam Patel in New Delhi; Editing by Robert Birsel

New Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge . EPA-EFE/JAGADEESH NV

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