Congress president poll win was a breeze; Kharge’s acid test begins now

Congress president poll win was a breeze; Kharge’s acid test begins now

From navigating the party's internal politics to solving the Rajasthan riddle to rebuilding his image, Kharge’s challenge of leading the Congress to electoral and organisational revival starts now

For Mallikarjun Kharge, winning the Congress presidential contest against Shashi Tharoor was always the easier task. Backed by much of the rank and file of the party during the presidential campaign and seen as the “unofficial official choice” of the Gandhi family for the role, Kharge’s victory against Tharoor was a foregone conclusion.

As he formally assumes charge as the crisis-ridden party’s president on Wednesday, the real challenge of leading the Congress on a path of electoral and organisational revival will now begin to unravel for 80-year-old warhorse.

The unwavering support he received from a cross-section of party members during the election offers Kharge no guarantee that his efforts towards implementing any kind of organisational overhaul will be welcomed with similar fervour. The road to the party’s electoral recovery is even more treacherous. What he will encounter on this journey will be determined as much by his own stewardship of the Congress as on the actions of the party’s rivals, particularly the BJP, and the often indecipherable voter sentiment.

The plenary ratification

Though Kharge will be handed his certificate of victory in the Congress presidential contest on Wednesday, his election to the post still needs to be ratified at a plenary session of the All-India Congress Committee (AICC). The dates for the plenary session have not been announced yet, but party sources say it could be convened sometime in December. The ratification at the AICC plenary is, of course, only a formality. Yet, it does not take the pressure off Kharge on issues of how he must navigate the labyrinth of the Congress’s internal politics.

Also read: Crown of thorns awaits next Cong chief; key is for Kharge, Tharoor to join forces

The plenary is expected to be convened only after the results of the Himachal Pradesh assembly elections—and, possibly, also the Gujarat assembly elections—are announced on December 8. The Congress faces an uphill electoral battle against the BJP and an expansionist AAP in Gujarat, where it has been out of power since 1995. In Himachal, the prospects of a Congress victory against the ruling BJP seem positive as of now.

Not much role in Assembly polls

Kharge was thrust into the Congress presidential election at the last minute. Upon assuming charge, he will have less than a month to make any major difference to how the party’s campaign in Himachal or Gujarat is run. So, Kharge’s contribution to his party’s poll strategy in both these states will be minimal.

In fact, the party declared all its candidates for the Himachal elections and firmed up its campaign strategy in the state before Kharge’s victory. Congress sources say even in Gujarat, Kharge is unlikely to have a major say in the selection of candidates or drawing the campaign. Rahul Gandhi already unveiled the broad strokes of the Congress campaign for Gujarat on September 5.

He will have the ready excuse of paucity of time to rebut any criticism for likely electoral setbacks in the two states. But another electoral battering for the party, especially if it also coincides with the AAP usurping Congress strongholds in Gujarat, will only amplify the pressure Kharge is already under.

Demand for internal polls

Yet another electoral rout would allow Congress members, especially the remaining members of the so-called G23 or the 1000+ delegates who supported Tharoor’s presidential bid, to impress upon Kharge the urgency to apply organisational correctives. Outgoing Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and former party president Rahul Gandhi either ignored or applied those correctives only half-heartedly over the past quarter century of their hold on the presidency. The AICC plenary session could give such discordant voices a platform to embarrass Kharge, and by extension, the Gandhis.

Also read: Believe in collective leadership, will consult Sonia, Rahul if elected Cong prez: Kharge

Prithviraj Chavan, former Maharashtra chief minister and a prominent G-23 member, has already begun canvassing for internal polls to elect AICC delegates and members to the party’s highest decision-making body, the Congress Working Committee (CWC). Chavan was among the proposers for Kharge’s candidature in the Congress presidential contest,

Internal elections for crucial organisational posts have been a major demand of the G23. Tharoor, too, had promised such polls as part of his presidential campaign. Kharge has largely been silent on conducting internal polls for various posts while status quo-ists in the grand old party believe such elections will foment organisational instability and deepen factional feuds. Sources say it is almost certain that the tricky issue will gain prominence at the AICC plenary, as and when it is convened, and Kharge will have no option but to respond to the demand one way or the other.

The Rajasthan riddle

Another immediate challenge awaiting the new Congress president’s attention is how to resolve the ongoing turf war between Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot. Last month, after Gehlot loyalists pre-empted and derailed a supposed bid by the Gandhis to appoint Pilot as the new Rajasthan CM, interim party president Sonia Gandhi had left the question of leadership change in the desert state hanging. That was even though organisational general-secretary KC Venugopal had stated publicly that she would take a call on the matter within days.

The Federal had reported last month that Sonia decided to leave the task of solving the Rajasthan riddle to her successor. That ominous challenge has now fallen on Kharge. With elections to the Rajasthan Assembly due in a year, Kharge cannot leave the matter unresolved for too long, but the options before him aren’t too many.

Also read: Kharge stays away from yatra; party keen to stress Gandhis’ neutrality: Sources

He can install Pilot, who has limited approval ratings among party MLAs and legislators extending outside support to the government in Rajasthan, and draw the wrath of Gehlot, who still commands the loyalty of over two-thirds of the Congress legislative party. Or, he can let Gehlot continue in office, ignoring the rebellion by his loyalists against Sonia’s perceived attempt to effect a change of guard and risk a renascent rebellion by Pilot. Or, he can sit the warring leaders down and arrive at some sort of compromise over a third leader assuming the CM’s chair.

The image trap

Reconciling the conflicting ambitions of Gehlot and Pilot in Rajasthan aside, Kharge also has a bigger challenge at hand within the AICC. The veteran from Karnataka was dubbed as a proxy candidate of the Gandhi family the moment he entered the presidential contest. It is an image trap he needs to break out of with urgency.

Many in the party believe that for Kharge to achieve that, one way would be to implement a reshuffle of the current AICC. He must ensure that several leaders, who became office bearers in recent years primarily due to their proximity to Rahul, are either weeded out or consigned to the sidelines. Party sources say a key target of this campaign is KC Venugopal, the all-powerful organisational general-secretary of the party and one of Rahul’s closest confidants.

Also read: Hail Shashi Tharoor, the real winner of the Congress presidential poll

A sizeable chunk of party leaders from across the Congress hierarchy have repeatedly complained against Venugopal’s incompetence and arrogance, but in vain. Similarly, complaints have been made against several other general secretaries and state in-charges—most handpicked by Rahul—of their ineptitude and lack of political skill and stature.

With Sonia now making way for Kharge, office bearers such as Venugopal, Jitendra Singh, Avinash Pande, Devender Yadav, Manish Chatrath, Bhakt Charan Das, Harish Chaudhary, Dinesh Gundu Rao, and Vivek Bansal, are once again in the line of fire. They have repeatedly failed in organisational assignments and even exacerbated existing internal crises within the party and its state units. Since almost all these leaders got their current organisational roles due to the largesse of one or more members of the Gandhi family, Kharge will have to consult closely with the Gandhis to bench any of them and name their replacements.

No time to ruminate

The new Congress president will also need to find key assignments for senior party colleagues who, in recent years, have made no secret of their sense of hurt and disillusionment with the party by being sidelined. Leaders such as Anand Sharma, Manish Tewari, and Prithviraj Chavan (all G-23 members) may not be electoral warhorses, but they have the potential to damage the party by making embarrassing statements. Thus, they need to be handled with care instead of simply being ignored as constant irritants.

Similarly, Kharge will have to show some magnanimity towards Tharoor and rope in the Thiruvananthapuram MP who polled nearly 12 per cent votes in the Congress presidential polls, riding on a narrative of change and vibrancy within the party.

Also read: Kharge’s rise in Congress leaves rivals anxious, from Karnataka to UP

With the next general election due in less than two years and a host of Assembly polls, including in Kharge’s home state Karnataka, scheduled before that, the new Congress president does not have the luxury of time. He cannot ruminate over the changes he wants to bring to the inertia-prone party or how he can implement the correctives his colleagues expect of him. The Congress has been hanging in suspended animation for way too long, and Kharge needs to push the party on a reinvigoration marathon. Can he?

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