Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi has handed over her position to her son Rahul Gandhi. Photo: Reuters

Rahul Gandhi will become the president of India’s oldest political party, the Indian National Congress, the organization that was at the vanguard of the nation’s independence movement. A schedule for his election was announced this week, and by December 19, he will formally take over from his mother Sonia, who steps down with the distinction of having been the Congress party’s longest-serving chief.

It comes at a good time for him: After years of having been seen as dithering, or uninterested, or even mediocre, he has recently come into his own.

During the current campaign for the Gujarat state legislature election he is drawing massive crowds, and is proving invulnerable to criticism – partly because people may be fatigued from hearing the same type of rhetoric from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Gandhi is also benefiting from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic missteps, including the high-value-currency demonetization and the disastrous implementation of the goods and services tax (GST).

Most important, Rahul Gandhi has no baggage despite the efforts of BJP parliamentarian Subramanian Swamy to ensnare him in a case involving the property of historic newspaper the National Herald. (It is public property that Swamy accuses the Gandhis of privately profiting from.)

Though some Congress members are reported to be uncomfortable with Gandhi’s agenda being solely anti-Modi, they appear to forget that Modi himself rode a wave against the government headed by his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh.

The only point Gandhi’s detractors can raise against him is that he has inherited the job, but his long apprenticeship (now 47, he has been a parliamentarian since 2004) appears to have lessened the force of such criticism.

A mysterious death

Contrast this with the president of the other party, Amit Shah, who is currently mired in a several controversies. The latest has emerged from a strong piece of journalism in a credible journal, Caravan, which raises questions about the death of a 48-year-old judge in the Sohrabuddin case.

The only point Rajiv Gandhi’s detractors can raise against him is that he has inherited the job, but his long apprenticeship appears to have lessened the force of such criticism. Contrast this with the president of the other party, Amit Shah, who is currently mired in a several controversies

Sohrabuddin Sheikh was killed in an alleged police execution in November 2005. He was known as an extortionist and an arms smuggler, and the police also accused him of association with the Lashkar-e-Toiba, a Pakistan-based group that has been designated by the US State Department as a terrorist organization. However, the credibility of Indian police on people they accuse of being terrorists is patchy as best; the most recent example is the court acquitting men accused of complicity in the 2005 blasts in Delhi (they spent 12 years in jail).

At the time Sohrabuddin was gunned down, he was in police custody. The man who was Gujarat’s minister of state for home affairs was Amit Shah, and he is the prime accused in this case.

What is more interesting is that Sohrabuddin was alleged to have been given the task of assassinating Gujarat’s home minister, Haren Pandya, who was ultimately shot dead by an associate of Sohrabuddin in March 2003, while out on a morning walk. Haren Pandya is said to have been murdered at the behest of “high-ups” in government, for he had testified to an inquiry about the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which a thousand Muslims were targeted and killed. His testimony was that the “high-ups” had instructed the police not to intervene in the riots.

The first judge hearing the Sohrabuddin case was transferred after he reprimanded Amit Shah in court for not showing up for the hearings. (He summoned Amit Shah on June 26, 2014; he was transferred on June 25.)

Then Brijgopal Loya was appointed judge. Loya died on December 1, 2014; the medical records say it was a heart attack (though he had a healthy medical history and his parents were alive). There are many inconsistencies in the post-mortem report, which was taken up without the family’s knowledge of consent. Further, Loya’s sister, herself a physician, says the chief justice of the Bombay High Court (under whose jurisdiction Loya’s court fell) offered him 1 billion rupees (US$15.4 million) to hand down a favorable judgment.

The most telling thing about the story is that no one, not even diehard BJP supporters, are surprised by the nature of the allegations. Such is the reputation for ruthlessness that Amit Shah enjoys.

Additionally, Amit Shah now has the stain of nepotism, after his son Jay’s company was found to have made a profit of 16,000% practically overnight.

Rahul Gandhi is increasingly questioning a high-value defense deal, for fighter jets from the French firm Dassault – the Modi government is paying three times the price for each jet than what had been negotiated under Manmohan Singh’s government. Critics believe that the stunning price hike benefits an industrialist from Modi’s and Shah’s home state, Gujarat.

Gandhi’s questions on the campaign trail seem to have unsettled the ruling party. From this snapshot in time it is clear that this is a good moment not only for Gandhi to take over his party, but also to drive home the advantage he has against the two old men heading the BJP and its government – Modi and Shah – in time for the 2019 parliamentary election.

Aditya Sinha

Aditya Sinha is a writer and journalist based on the outskirts of Delhi. He tweets at @autumnshade.