For years now, Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as the Congress president has been a given. By virtue of his last name and his family’s continued primacy within the principal opposition party, his coronation was always a matter of when and not if. So it makes sense that the process of his elevation was seen more as being about image management than any political maneuvering. By that measure, having Gandhi take the reins in early December makes sense.

From afar at least, it seems Gandhi has never been more popular. True, this is the second time this year alone that the media appears to be fully taken in by the Congress’s many attempts to turn the Nehru-Gandhi scion into a public leader. Yet, Gandhi’s popularity in Gujarat seems much less manufactured than was reflected in the “apne UP ke ladke” slogan of the Uttar Pradesh election campaign earlier this year.

And it is not just because much of the country is reeling from the twin shocks of demonetisation and the botched roll-out of the Goods and Services Tax. That helps, of course, especially when coupled with the fact that the last few months have seen more questioning of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s record than any other time in the three and a half years of his tenure. Additionally, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has been ruling Gujarat for more than two decades now, and anti-incumbency seems to have become a genuine force. The Congress has even managed to turn Modi’s development plank into a liability, with its vikas gando thayo che (development gone crazy) campaign.

Media in mind

So, with the Election Commission mandating internal elections before the end of the year, the Congress Working Committee announced on Monday it would hold the party polls in early December. The notification is to be issued on December 1 and nominations can be filed until December 4. The party said voting would take place on December 16 with counting on December 19, but only if necessary. What might happen is that if Gandhi is the only candidate, his victory would be announced on December 5 itself.

The timing is designed to get the Congress as much media attention as possible in the days just before Gujarat votes on December 9 and December 14, with the results out on December 19. If, as expected, Gandhi is appointed unopposed, he would take charge just before what many are calling the closest Gujarat election in decades.

A win in Gujarat or even a significant dent in the BJP’s strength would set Gandhi up nicely for a year of campaigning in the run-up to the next Lok Sabha election, slated in 2019. In some ways, this is the best opportunity yet for Gandhi to take charge. But that is partly because he missed all the other opportunities. The Congress first heard calls for him to take over back in 2009, with many suggesting he be made prime minister in place of Manmohan Singh. Every few years since there have been demands for Gandhi to be made party president. Noises would ensue about his mother, Sonia Gandhi, being prepared to give way and anoint Rahul the party’s chief. Then nothing would happen.

Belated takeover

In 2013, ahead of what was evidently going to be the Congress’ toughest fight in the following year’s Lok Sabha election, he was made the party’s vice president. In the election, the Congress dropped to a historic low of 44 seats. Despite this, and with no record of having achieved much, Gandhi was still seen as the party’s president-in-waiting, with rumours and demands that he take charge coming every few months. The undercurrent to this was the perceived battle between the so-called old guard, Congress leaders and heads of other parties who preferred working with Sonia Gandhi, and the relatively youthful team that Gandhi preferred but that didn’t always work well with allies.

Over the last year, however, with Sonia Gandhi’s health deteriorating, the party has slowly moved all responsibilities to her son, turning his elevation into a mere formality. This means it is unlikely there will be any opposition to his expected election in December, with the old guard now resigned to the fact that Gandhi is taking over.

But with his mother still very much around, no one is expecting a radical makeover of the Congress under Gandhi, not least because he has effectively been running the party for some time now. But the decision to connect his coronation so closely to the Gujarat election is something of a gamble for the party, one that will tell us plenty about what the Congress under him might look like.

For all the noise the Congress is making in Gujarat, its humiliating defeat in Uttar Pradesh and the BJP’s relative dominance in the poll-bound state means few are actually expecting a victory for the opposition party. If that ends up being the case, the Congress under Rahul Gandhi will start on a sombre note. How he responds, especially if the result is as bad as in Uttar Pradesh, will set the tone for the coming year and the 2019 election.