Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday called serving the Congress Party "an honour" as he resigned as the leader of India's main opposition party, saying he owed "the country and my organisation a debt of tremendous gratitude and love".
"I was born a Congressman, this party has always been with me and is my life's blood and forever that way it shall remain," said Gandhi at the end of a four-page letter shared on Twitter.
Earlier in the day, according to Hindustan Times, Gandhi had told reporters that the party must quickly decide on the new chief and that its top decision-making body, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), must meet at the earliest to pick a new president. "I have already submitted my resignation and I am no longer the party president," news agency ANI quoted him as saying.
On Tuesday, Gandhi — whose father, grandmother and great grandfather were all former prime ministers — had spurned appeals to reconsider his resignation as leader of the Congress party after losing a second general election to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Stuck between a leader determined to quit and party officials unwilling to accept his leaving, Congress is effectively leaderless more than a month after its election drubbing and facing key state polls later this year.
Chief ministers from five Congress-ruled states went to New Delhi on Monday where they spent two hours trying to convince Gandhi to reverse his May 25 decision to resign.
“We told him our point of view, openly, in a long conversation,” Ashok Gehlot, a senior Congress leader and chief minister of Rajasthan, told reporters.
A close aide to Gandhi, speaking to Reuters after the meeting, had said the 49-year-old was firm about stepping aside as Congress president, a position he held since succeeding his mother, Sonia Gandhi, in late 2017.
“He will never change his mind,” the aide had said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
“He feels that the way forward is not him continuing as Congress president [...] and let somebody outside the Gandhi family be Congress president,” the aide said, adding the party cannot “just depend on one person, one family”.
Gandhi will remain in politics to help rebuild Congress from the ground up, the aide said, rather than stay on as leader due to his family’s political lineage.
The Nehru-Gandhi family has dominated the party, and through it Indian politics for decades, producing three prime ministers, but Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have accused Congress of promoting “dynasty” politics.
The Modi-led BJP has trounced Congress in two successive general elections, winning 303 out of 542 parliament seats in 2019, and wresting away Gandhi’s own parliament seat in a family borough in northern India.
Despite the defeats, Congress officials said they want Gandhi to stay because they fear the party may splinter without him.
“There is nobody else aside from him who can keep the organization together,” said a member of CWC who requested anonymity.
“He will have to lead. There’s no option,” he said.
Congress does not have a clear succession plan.
The CWC is comprised mainly of members who are close to the Gandhi family and are less inclined to find another leader, another Congress official said.
“The CWC is supposed to appoint the Congress president, but the Congress president has appointed the CWC,” the official said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
While the CWC has not begun the official process of finding the next leader, 68-year-old Gehlot is among the potential frontrunners, according to three other party officials.
Mallikarjun Kharge, 76, a former Congress leader in parliament, is also a possible candidate, one of the three officials said.
Both men are part of the party’s entrenched old guard, reflecting its inability to promote younger leaders, which some officials identified as a major reason for the 2019 general election defeat.
“This is the time to take tough decisions,” the party official said.