India’s Congress begins vote to elect new party president

NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s main opposition Congress party voted to elect a new president Monday, with members of its dominant Nehru-Gandhi dynasty staying out of the race.

Sonia Gandhi, the interim party president, was among the nearly 9,000 party delegates who were entitled to vote on the matter.

“I have been waiting for this for a long time,” she said after voting in the party’s New Delhi office.

Although the party has historically been led by the family, Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi, decided to bring in a new face after suffering crushing defeats in national and state elections since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party came to power in 2014.

Eighty-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge from southern Karnataka state appears to be the frontrunner with the party’s top leaders backing him during campaigning ahead of the vote. He has been described by Indian media as the “official candidate.” His main challenger is Shashi Tharoor, 66, who spent nearly 30 years at the United Nations before joining the Congress party in 2009.

“I believe the revival of the Congress has begun,” Tharoor said after casting his vote.

Tharoor, however, complained to the party’s election authority that he has been denied a level playing field as some senior party leaders, including Ashok Gehlot and Siddaramaiah, issued appeals to party delegates urging them vote for Kharge.

Madhusudan Mistry, who heads the party’s election board, is yet to announce his decision on Tharoor’s complaint.

The election to the top party post is a major step toward ending the party’s struggle to find a new leader after dismal results in the 2019 national elections and Rahul Gandhi’s subsequent resignation as party president.

Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi said last month that no one from the Gandhi family will be in the race this time. Vote-counting and results are scheduled for Wednesday.

Modi has denounced Congress’ dynastic politics.

The party has been led by non-family members in the past, but Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have been at the helm of party affairs since 1998.

The family has produced three of India’s 15 prime ministers since independence, starting with his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the country’s first. Two of them — his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and father, Rajiv Gandhi — were assassinated. The party governed India for more than 60 years after India gained independence from British colonialists in 1947.

Rahul Gandhi is on a 3,500-kilometer (2,185-mile) walking tour of Indian cities, towns and villages over the next four months as he attempts to rejuvenate the party and win the people’s support ahead of key state legislature elections in Himachal Pradesh state and Modi’s home state of Gujarat. The results are likely to impact the country’s next national elections, due in 2024.

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