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

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

As she walked into 24, Akbar Road on Monday (October 17) morning with daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in tow to cast her vote for her party’s presidential election, interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi told reporters, “I have been waiting for a long time for this day”.

Sonia hadn’t been waiting alone. Ever since Rahul Gandhi stepped down from the Congress presidency after leading the party to a rout in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and paving the way for an ailing Sonia’s return as interim chief, the Grand Old Party had been seeking a full-time chief even as its troubles, organisational and electoral, continued to mount. Though Sonia had, during a stormy Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting last October, said she was a “full-time and hands on Congress president”, there had been enough discordant notes within the party asserting the need for what the so-called G-23 reform-seekers had, in their letter of August 2020 to Sonia, described as “an effective and visible leadership”.

A crown of thorns

Over 9,500 Congress delegates across the country have now voted to elect either Mallikarjun Kharge or Shashi Tharoor as Sonia’s successor. Who among the two will finally don the crown of thorns that is the Congress presidency will be known by Wednesday (October 19) afternoon, though Kharge is widely seen as the victor-in-waiting.

Also read: Cong might get a non-Gandhi head, but will it solve its problems? Unlikely

The morass that the Congress has found itself in since 2014, more so over the past three years, needs no recollection. Its electoral atrophy and internal turmoil have been subjects of ad nauseam debates, scrutiny, ridicule and condemnation in the political, media and public spheres.

Now that the Congress, for the first time in a quarter century, is set to get a duly elected president, and a non-Gandhi at that, the troika of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka can strike out at least one suggestion from the long to-do list that they’ve been repeatedly handed over by all and sundry.

It is, of course, highly unlikely that the pressure on the Gandhis to spruce up the Congress will ease off just because someone who doesn’t share their surname now will hold the presidency. If the delegitimizing of Kharge’s candidature that hogged news headlines and editorial pages all through the party’s presidential campaign is any indication, his expected victory will only intensify such demands on the Gandhis.

The public discourse

Through the course of the campaign, much was said and written by several eminences on the farcical nature of the contest. But why there is no expectation from other political parties to conduct internal elections to pick a chief remains a mystery. Breathless commentaries reeking of a class bias, if nothing more sinister, were made to assert why the 80-year-old Kharge, with unimpressive oratorical skills in English and Hindi and a lack of charisma, was a poor ‘unofficial’ choice of the Gandhis for the presidency over the 66-year-old Tharoor, a man of international repute for his erudition, linguistic flourish or even charming looks.

With the fate of Kharge and Tharoor sealed in ballot boxes tucked away in a strong room at the Congress headquarters till counting day, the hyperventilation that typified the campaign can now be relegated to the past. What awaits the victor are more ominous challenges of rebuilding and revitalising the Congress.

Whoever wins the contest will need the help of the other in achieving the seemingly impossible goal of making the Congress ready for battle against the BJP well before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

Rancour-free election

Fortunately, both candidates, despite the conflicting demands of their individual campaigns, succeeded in keeping their exchanges free of rancour.

Tharoor, tipped to lose the fight given the lack of popularity he enjoys within the Congress and the presumed lack of faith that the Gandhis have in his aptitude to lead the party, has repeatedly said that the election outcome will not dampen his zeal to strengthen the GOP. On more than one occasion, Tharoor has candidly conceded that various political outfits have, at different points in time, approached him with an offer to defect from the Congress. The Thiruvananthapuram MP, at least for now, seems unwilling to jump ship.

As such, the Congress and the Gandhis should be rather happy that the contest that just concluded was, as Tharoor often described, a “friendly” one, unlike the few elections the GOP had for its presidency in the past when the contestants not only indulged in muck-raking against each other during the campaign but also continued to do so once the results were declared, leaving the party weaker, or embarrassed, or both.

Though their articulation may have differed, the campaign has shown that both Kharge and Tharoor are acutely aware of the correctives needed for an organisational revival of the Congress. That an organisational reboot is a necessary pre-requisite for an electoral resuscitation is also equally obvious to both contestants.

The meeting of thoughts

Through the course of his campaign, Kharge stressed on the need for unity in the Congress with his ‘main nahi, hum’ (not I, but we) slogan. He assured party delegates across all states that if elected he would ensure that implementing the resolutions passed at the Congress’s Udaipur Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir in May this year to usher in organisational reforms would be his priority. The Udaipur brainstorming session had given the party a blueprint for internal reforms which included suggestions like reserving 50 per cent positions across the party structure for people below the age of 50, greater representation in party appointments to people from sections such as women, the SC, ST and backward caste communities and religious minorities.

Also read: Bharat Jodo Yatra: Key to Congress’ electoral revival lies elsewhere

Since unanimity within the party on proposals included in the Chintan Shivir resolution has already been achieved, these are organisational reforms that the new Congress president can start to implement soon after assuming charge.

The promises Tharoor made through his campaign are equally important for the organisational revival of the Congress. It would be unfortunate if these are consigned to a cold storage if Kharge is elected. Part of Tharoor’s ‘Ten Tenets’ for the party were proposals such as decentralisation of power within the high command centric party, regular inner party interactions between the party president, office bearers and party workers, capping the tenures of party president and office bearers at a maximum of two five-year terms, reinvigorating the party’s otherwise hackneyed election management and emphasis on collective decision making, among others.

Tharoor’s stress on decentralisation of power by dismantling the high command culture was seen as a bid to marginalise the Gandhis. While a Congress minus the Gandhis remains an idea that is yet unimaginable (something Tharoor too has repeatedly asserted), it is hard to argue against the merits of decentralisation of power in the party. The same is true for most of the other poll promises Tharoor made. Several of these suggestions have, indeed, been made by various party leaders and workers from time to time but never heeded by the high command.

Suggestions to ponder

As such, if Kharge does win the election as expected, he might want to look into Tharoor poll manifesto and work towards fulfilling at least some, if not all, of these promises in the interest of the Congress. An even better proposition would be for Kharge to enlist Tharoor in a key organisational role instead of wasting him in some toothless and barely known vertical such the All India Professionals Congress that the diplomat-turned-politician was heading until recently.

There is one another aspect of Tharoor’s presidential campaign that the new Congress president must not brush off lightly. Kharge may have had the backing of a majority of the party’s senior leaders in his campaign, but Tharoor’s bid was largely backed by ordinary party workers, particularly the youth, who have found their voice stifled under successive dispensations of the party for too long.

Old timers in the Congress often mock the party as one that has “only leaders and no workers”. For a party that, unlike the BJP, the Left outfits, the Trinamool Congress, SP, BSP, DMK, Shiv Sena, et al, has no definitive cadre but a more amorphous base of workers that has no direct access to even a second or third rung leader, the alienation of the worker from the party’s power matrix is a recipe for disaster and evidence of this damaging the Congress has been there for all to see.

The support that Tharoor got from ordinary party workers and delegates is indicative of the frustration that these Mandal, booth or district-level foot soldiers of the Congress harbour against the present apparatus. Interestingly, a chunk of Tharoor’s backers came from the north-eastern states, Jammu and Kashmir as well as Tamil Nadu and even Uttar Pradesh – all states where the Congress has been struggling to revive itself. It would be prudent for the party to use Tharoor’s lively campaigning skills and his public persona to attract workers and voters towards the Congress.

Organisational stability, a priority

In the run up to the Congress president’s election, a senior party leader had told this reporter that much of the public debate over the two contestants was based on the assumption that the post of the Congress chief should go to a man who is popular with the masses and can bring in votes. This assumption, the leader said, was “way off the mark” because in his opinion, though bringing in elusive votes was key to the Congress’s revival, what was needed to achieve this was for the party to first find a president who could “unite the party, work with different factions and give an impression of organisational stability”.

With an illustrious political career of five decades that saw him serve nine consecutive terms as an MLA in Karnataka, twice as a Lok Sabha MP and in numerous constitutional as well as organisational posts, Kharge, perhaps, embodies the stability that the Congress needs at the moment.

Also read: Congress’ Udaipur roadmap gets marred by party’s leadership issue

He may lack the skills of rousing voters through speeches or the physical fitness required of the Congress president to canvass aggressively across the length and breadth of the country. Yet, as someone who clearly enjoys the confidence of the Gandhis as well as party leaders across the board, Kharge may be better placed than Tharoor, a relatively recent politician who evidently lacks acceptance among both Congress stalwarts and contemporaries, to give some semblance of organisational cohesion.

How the new Congress president scripts the party’s electoral revival is a task he will have to start working towards almost immediately after assuming charge and one in which Tharoor may yet find a key role.

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