The heir to India’s most famous political dynasty has replaced his mother as the leader of the Indian National Congress (INC), the party founded by Mohandas Gandhi that has fallen on hard times after decades of control of the government in New Delhi.
Rahul Gandhi is the scion of India’s most esteemed political dynasty, the Nehru-Gandhi family. His father, Rajiv, served as prime minister from 1984 to 1988 and his mother, Sonia, spent 19 years leading the Indian National Congress, stepping down for her son on Monday.
His paternal grandmother, Indira Gandhi nee Nehru, preceded her son, serving as India’s first and only female prime minister. His great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister, and his work to reform India from a British colony to a sovereign republic has made him a legendary figure in Indian politics.
One famous figure in Indian politics that Rahul Gandhi does not share blood with is the most famous Gandhi of all: Mohandas Gandhi, who founded INC. Rahul’s surname comes from Feroze Gandhi, Indira’s husband.
Gandhi has been groomed for politics since birth, but his critics deride him as young and naive. He faces a stiff challenge in rebuilding the left-wing INC; once India’s most dominant party, the Congress is now increasingly irrelevant. The party was founded by Mohandas Gandhi and was dominant until the 1990s, when corruption scandals and a sagging economy slowly sapped them of support.
Part of that decline is due to the ascension of the right-wing Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by India’s charismatic Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi enjoys high popularity domestically and a high profile internationally based on his promises to modernize and strengthen India. A Pew Research Center poll earlier in 2017 placed Modi’s approval ratings at 88 percent — Gandhi had 58 percent.
The BJP currently controls 274 of the 545 seats in the Lok Sabha, the more powerful of India’s two legislative houses. INC, the main opposition party, is a distant second with 46 seats.
But Gandhi seeks to restore the prestige of INC and overtake Modi as the face of modern India. In the US, he is best known for his active presence on social media and a series of speeches criticizing Modi at American universities.
The Gandhi-Nehru dynasty’s name carries a great deal of weight in India, but they’re also known for something else: being assassinated. Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were assassinated: the former in 1984, the latter in 1991. Rahul was a teenager during the first incident and 21 for the second.
“In my life I have seen my grandmother die, I have seen my father die, I have seen my grandmother go to jail and I have actually been through a tremendous amount of pain as a child,” he said in a 2014 TV interview. “When these things happen to you, what I had to be scared of, I lost. There is absolutely nothing I am scared of.”