By Shivam Patel
NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India’s opposition Congress party declared veteran leader Mallikarjun Kharge its new chief on Wednesday, the first person from outside the influential Nehru-Gandhi family to hold the beleaguered party’s presidency in 24 years.
Kharge, an 80-year-old from the lowest rung of India’s caste system, is seen as a loyalist of the Gandhi family, which has produced three Indian prime ministers and is expected to retain its clout over the party.
The Congress 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).
“The most important issues facing the country right now is inflation, unemployment, a widening divide between the rich and poor and a growing environment of hatred spread by the ruling government,” Kharge told reporters after his win.
He overwhelmingly won the party vote held on Monday, defeating former U.N. diplomat Shashi Tharoor.
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.
“This symbolic change of the president is a very powerful moment for the Congress,” said Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research think tank.
“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 operation 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.
Sonia and Rahul are the widow and son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who followed his mother Indira Gandhi and grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru. The three collectively ruled India for all but around four of its first 40 years of independence.
Kharge said Rahul Gandhi had congratulated him on the phone and told him that he would keep working as a “foot soldier” of the Congress.
(Reporting by Shivam Patel in New DelhiEditing by Robert Birsel and Peter Graff)