Can Mallikarjun Kharge engineer a congressional resurgence?
As the Bharat Jodo Yatra moved through Karnataka, veteran Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge found himself in a sticky situation. As the state’s oldest leader, Kharge was due to walk with Congresswoman Sonia Gandhi as she briefly joined the padyatra led by her son Rahul Gandhi. But then Kharge was also a candidate in the party’s highly anticipated presidential election, and his participation would raise questions about the Gandhi family’s electoral neutrality.
With the election approaching, however, Kharge chose not only to march with Rahul, but also to participate in a public rally in Bellary to mark the 1,000 kilometer yatra. The sight of Kharge walking with Rahul was eye-opening, both in terms of the ballot process and what awaits the new Congress president. It portrays Kharge in sync with Rahul and provides insight into the role of the new party leader as it relates to Rahul, whose image as the face of the party in the run up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections is changing. to be polished by the yatra.
The presidential election was the first to be held in Congress since 2000. The party wanted it to be seen as a representation of internal democracy, blunting claims that the Gandhis exercised dynastic control over the organization. Every step of the survey process felt new. Guidelines had to be issued by the party’s Central Electoral Authority (CEA) to give the two candidates – “status quoist” Kharge and “anti-establishment” Shashi Tharoor – the same kind of welcome when they stood traveled to the States to campaign. But it was to be expected that there would be a favorite that would get special treatment. In this case, it was Kharge.
Both candidates embarked on a turbulent campaign, visiting state capitals, addressing press conferences, taking to social media and listing their platform as party president. In the end, no less than 9,385 of the 9,915 delegates voted in 67 voting booths across the country. Kharge won 7,897 votes, 6,825 more than Tharoor. There were 416 invalid votes.
Kharge’s victory was never in doubt – he had the overwhelming support of most party leaders, including members of the ‘G23’ – the group of 23 senior leaders who demanded wide-ranging changes in Congress . From the start of the campaign, it was clear that Kharge was the choice of Gandhis and the party establishment.
After 24 years, Congress now has a non-Gandhi at the helm. Kharge is also the first Dalit to become party chairman after Jagjivan Ram in 1970-71. The party would like this to be seen as its commitment to the cause of the marginalized.
With his valiant and spirited campaign, Tharoor grew in stature and consolidated support for his reformist ideas. Although he often had to dig his own furrow, even his G23 colleagues abandoning him, Tharoor managed to collect as many as 1,072 votes. To put things into perspective, Jitendra Prasada only got 94 votes against Sonia Gandhi in 2000. Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot only got 882 and 354 votes respectively against Sitaram Kesri in 1996.
Acknowledgment of Tharoor’s increased influence came midway through the campaign, when Congress appointed him to head the House Standing Committee on Chemicals and Fertilizers. There is now speculation that he could be part of the new congressional working committee that will be set up under Kharge. He may even be included in the team of serving presidents or vice presidents that may be formed to assist the new president.
“I’m delighted with the result, and now there’s an infusion of fresh blood into the big old party,” Shashi Tharoor told THE WEEK. “Congress is here to stay. No one should write us off. I will meet Kharge and give him my full support.
The task for Kharge, 80, is cut out. He is the first full-time Congress president in three years, succeeding Sonia who had been at the helm since 1998, except for a year and a half between 2017 and 2019 when Rahul was party leader. With his vast governance and organizational experience, Kharge takes the reins at a time when Congress is at its weakest. The party is reeling from a series of electoral setbacks and the relentless exodus of leaders.
Kharge’s immediate challenge: Assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh later this year. In Gujarat, the party is widely seen as having squandered gains from previous polls, in which it won 77 of 182 seats. Since then, there has been an exodus of leaders from Congress, which now also has to contend with an aggressive Aam Aadmi party.
In Himachal Pradesh, Congress is struggling to overcome internal differences to take advantage of anti-incumbency against the ruling BJP. Its most respected leader, Virbhadra Singh, died last year, and the party is unable to project a new face due to internal power wrangling.
If the party performs poorly in both states, Kharge and Congress would start to step back in 2023, an election-crucial year. Polls are expected next year in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, states where Congress and the BJP will have direct battles. The outcome will affect Congress preparations for the Lok Sabha elections in 2024.
Kharge has been cautious in handling demands for a party overhaul, saying he would consult with all senior leaders, including the Gandhis, before deciding what needs to be done. He said he remained committed to implementing the Udaipur declaration on reforms, which was adopted after the party’s reflection conclave held earlier this year.
“Kharge has the kind of experience needed to lead a party like Congress,” said senior Congress official Ambika Soni. “He held various positions during his long political career. He was a legislator, leader of the opposition and minister. He inspires confidence and has the ability to take everyone on.
Providing the party with ideological clarity would be another challenge. The Kharge-led panel at the Udaipur conclave had proposed that Congress reaffirm its commitment to the Constitution, protect India’s federal structure, empower the oppressed and guarantee freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship.
“The BJP is going down the same path of oppression that the British have taken before,” said Congress leader and Rajya Sabha member Pramod Tiwari. “We strongly believe that Kharge can give an appropriate response to the BJP-RSS ideology. I have seen in Rajya Sabha how he roars like a lion when he takes over the ruling party.
A big question is, what would be the role of Gandhis from now on? It is widely believed that the Gandhis will continue to greatly influence decision-making within the party. Also, Rahul is expected to be the face of the party in the Lok Sabha polls. Congress leaders also pointed out that Kharge has an excellent relationship with Rahul.
“The contribution of the Gandhi family to the nation and to the party is unparalleled,” said AICC Treasurer Pawan Kumar Bansal. “We cannot forget the sacrifices they made for the country. Sonia Gandhi did not want to continue as party president. And we all urged Rahul Gandhi to return as party chairman, but he said a firm no. Now we have rested our faith on a person with immense experience.
One can read perhaps in the enthusiasm of a group of batsmen who gathered at the headquarters of the Congress in Delhi after the publication of the results. They celebrated Kharge’s victory by chanting Rahul’s name. Apparently, many of the invalid votes involved the delegates writing Rahul’s name on ballots. The message has gone home: Kharge may be the party’s new chairman, but Rahul continues to have a commanding presence.