Rahul Gandhi today looked set to take over the reins of the party from his mother on December 5, days ahead of the crucial Gujarat Assembly polls, with the Congress Working Committee (CWC) approving the schedule for the party president's election.
The CWC, the party's highest decision making body, met here today and approved the schedule for the much-awaited election to the top party post, which has been occupied by Sonia Gandhi for a record 19 years since 1998, when she replaced Sitaram Kesri.
The election process will kick off on December 1 with the beginning of filing of nominations. The last date for nominations is December 4, until 3 pm. Following scrutiny of nominations on December 5, the list of valid candidatures will be put out on the same day at 3:30 pm.
Party sources said Gandhi, the 47-year-old vice president, is likely to be the sole candidate in the fray and is "deemed to be the next party chief" on December 5, a few days before the Gujarat Assembly polls kick off. Polling for the two- phase election is to be held on December 9 and 14.
Counting of votes and declaration of results will take place on December 19, Mullapally Ramachandran, the chairman of the Congress central election authority, told reporters after the CWC meeting.
A contest, however, seems unlikely.
Rahul Gandhi was appointed Congress vice president in 2013 and speculation about his elevation has been rife for quite some time, particularly after Sonia began keeping indifferent health.
For a long time, Rahul Gandhi was said to be reluctant about assuming the reins of the party, and it was only at an interaction with students and faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, in the US in September this year that he said he was ready for the job.
"I am absolutely ready to do that," he said, responding a question.
The imminent promotion of Rahul Gandhi was hailed by several Congress leaders, but panned by the ruling BJP.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said the proposed elevation was a step in the right direction which would help revive the party ahead of the 2016 Lok Sabha elections.
"It is time to pass on the baton of the party affairs into the able hands of Rahul Gandhi, who is mature and competent enough to lead the Congress into the next Lok Sabha elections," Amarinder told reporters in Chandigarh.
Congress MP Renuka Chowdhary said Rahul Gandhis elevation as the partys president would have a positive impact on the organisation.
The former Union minister, however, said his promotion would not lead to the partys old guard getting "thrown by the wayside".
The BJP, however, took a swipe at the development.
"Can an ordinary booth level worker aspire to be the national president of the Congress? Or is the post reserved only for the family? Is it possible even for a state level leader to even aspire to be considered for the post," senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad said in the national capital.
The Union minister cited the examples of BJP chief Amit Shah and his predecessors Nitin Gadkari and Rajnath Singh who were all ordinary booth-level workers in the party before they went on to head it.
Another Union minister Giriraj Singh said," The Congress has now become a private limited company".
As the Congress got ready for a generational shift, the partys communication department chief Randeep Surjewala said Sonia Gandhi would continue to guide the organisation.
"Sonia Gandhi is our leader and mentor. She has always guided the Congress party ... Her able leadership and guidance will always be available, not only to Rahulji, but also to crores and crores of Congressmen and women always."
Replying to a question on the role of Sonia Gandhi after the election, Surjewala said, "Let the election process be concluded and I will be very happy to answer that question."
Those eligible to vote are Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) delegates who have already been elected by their respective state units.
Once the president has been named, he or she will choose a new CWC team comprising vice president, general secretaries and treasurer among other office bearers. In her opening remarks, Sonia Gandhi launched a stinging attack on the government on a range of issues, including demonetisation, goods and services tax and unemployment.
"The Modi government, in its arrogance, has cast a dark shadow on India parliamentary democracy by sabotaging the Winter session of Parliament on flimsy grounds," she told the partys highest decision-making body.
According to party sources, Rahul Gandhi told the meeting that every Congress worker should "aim for the bulls eye" in the upcoming election in Gujarat, where the party is locked in a bitter contest with the BJP after being out of power for 22 years.
The Election Commission has given the party the last extension for completing the internal poll process by the end of this year.