Kharge choice: Congress’ socio-political engineering ahead of 2024

Kharge choice: Congress’ socio-political engineering ahead of 2024

The Congress is, indeed, not only going through the motions of electing a new party president but is also laying the very foundations of the struggle that will eventually draw the lines or shape the contours of the big electoral battle of 2024.

Eighty-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge is quite likely to become the next Congress chief as the choice of senior party peers finally fell on him after Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot opted out of the race after what he called a “regrettable turn of events” in his home state. The Rajasthan government came to a brink as MLAs backing Gehlot did not like to relieve him for the task of heading the Congress from Delhi.

This is how the huge task of presiding over and running the Congress party is inadvertently going to come Kharge’s way. And it mainly entails to make the party battle-ready before going for general elections in 2024. This is what most senior Congress leaders expect from him after he becomes party president. It is more so due to Kharge’s consistently sagacious, if not stellar, role in politics for about half-a-century in one or the other capacity as he traversed and rose through the ranks of the Congress.

Also read: With Khabri helming UP unit, Congress gets cracking on Dalit outreach

But since the role a leader’s caste identity plays is an irrefutable reality of today’s electoral politics, the fact that Kharge comes from the Dalit community must have been in the minds of his backers in the Congress for the top party post. It is more so since only recently the BJP decided to make Draupadi Murmu, who belongs to the tribal community, the President of the country. Moreover, her predecessor, Ram Nath Kovind, was from the Dalit community. Electoral compulsions are thought to be behind such moves and, thus, the Congress higher-ups cannot be expected to forego these and sit without offering a suitable socio-political response.

Also read: Cong polls: While Kharge claims no G-23 now, Tharoor calls for an open debate

Thus, the choice fell on Kharge though this was after quite a few twists and turns that lasted for a week or so due to Gehlot’s reticence that finally led to his abandoning the idea of taking over the reins of Congress.

Kharge, a safe bet electorally

Kharge filed his nomination papers on September 30. As for the Gehlot interregnum that also brought in Digvijaya Singh to the race, though briefly, a Congress spokesman said that these are “done and dusted with” and the party has since moved on. Yet, the point that deserves to be marked here is that like Gehlot, Kharge too is electorally safe and sound for Congress since if the former represents backwards in the party, the latter belongs to similarly or even a more underprivileged section. Gehlot comes from Mali caste in Rajasthan and this clan has similar offshoots or variants in most regions of the country. So the changeover from Gehlot to Kharge does not carry any great shift from the larger society’s point of view. More so, since lower caste voters or Dalits and backwards happen to be more consequential than their socially superior counterparts.

In keeping with the current electoral sociology and to carry it forward under Kharge whose election is being taken as a foregone conclusion, the party has appointed a former Dalit MP Brijlal Khabri as president of Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee (UPCC). The step was taken within a day of Kharge’s nomination as a candidate for the post of Congress president against Shashi Tharoor. The idea behind the move is to redeem the ground lost by the party in UP even before Kharge takes the baton to run the party from Sonia Gandhi. The crucial UP appointment has obviously been made either in consultation with Kharge, or with the intent of providing him the much needed support in the most populous state of the country.

In the meantime, Kharge has taken note of Tharoor’s media blitz since the filing of nomination papers by the two on the same day. Kharge invited mediapersons to his New Delhi residence for interaction on October 2 over lunch. Among other things, Kharge said that it was on the insistence of senior party leaders that he decided to fight for the Congress president’s post. He also remarked, “It is much better to have a consensus candidate for the president’s post”.

Also read: CP polls: Kharge’s entry safe for Gandhis, risky for Congress in North

Far from this, Tharoor has been harping on the need for a change in Congress. He is on a visit to Vidarbha since Sunday and is also likely to visit other parts of the country for his campaign. But unlike him, his party peers on Kharge’s side believe in change with a clear electorally-savvy socio-political slant that may suit Kharge’s image as a Dalit leader. Khabri’s appointment in UP is a part of this strategy.

Support from G-23 leaders

Strangely, some of Tharoor’s G-23 cohorts, who rebelled against what they earlier thought to be the Gandhis overbearing role in the party, became proposers for Kharge’s candidature against Tharoor. Those who sided with Kharge despite having been part of G-23 include Anand Sharma, Manish Tewari, Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Mukul Wasnik. The last of them is a Dalit like Kharge and all of them are rather Congress’ bigwigs. Together, or at least some of them, could have easily sensed the changes that could come in the wake of Kharge’s rise to the top in the party. Obviously, they thought these changes hold some promise for the Congress with possibly having the potential of changing Congress’ electoral fortunes in the times to come.

So, apparently, they thought it best to fall in line with the party’s emerging top rungs where Kharge is going to call the shots along with the Gandhis. Similar has also been the case when Congress was in power and Manomhan Singh and Sonia Gandhi got along very well for ten long and quite rewarding years for the Congress.

Moreover, Kharge as a person is feared by none and respected by all. This is clearly holding him in better stead than his rival for the October 17 election of Congress president. The warring groups or factions of the party are again either closing ranks or showing signs of doing so by the time votes are cast. This is how a few Congressmen have appealed to Tharoor to withdraw from the race against Kharge in the larger interests of the party.

Notably, it is so despite the fact that in the past the Congress’ attempt to play Dalit card in Punjab by promoting Chanranjit Singh Channi, a Dalit Sikh, to the post of Chief Minister only months before the last Assembly polls held earlier this year came a cropper. The Congress lost the polls in the border state and Channi in his constituency.

This is why the Congress now appears to be set to back Kharge to the hilt. It is unlike Channi’s case who had replaced Captain Amarinder Singh as Punjab chief minister. Channi was much junior to his predecessor whereas Kharge is among the senior-most leaders of the party. So his supporters in the party hope the best for him.

Former Dalit presidents

Yet, it is a fact that much before these Dalit-savvy moves in the Congress, the late Jagjivan Ram, a party’s Dalit veteran, rose to the post of Congress president. The party won handsomely in 1971 Lok Sabha polls under his stewardship. Indira Gandhi’s famous Garibi Hatao slogan resonated well with the electorate because of a Dalit Congress chief standing on her side through the campaign.

Though Jagjivan Ram was more illustrious a figure of his times than his most contemporaries or as compared to even today’s Congress leaders, whether Dalits or from more influential background, Damodaram Sanjivayya, another Dalit Congress leader, became Congress president before Ram way back in 1962 when Jawaharlal Nehru was the prime minister.

Also read: Congress polls: Gehlot backs Kharge, says Tharoor belongs to elite class

Sanjivayya also became Andhra Pradesh chief minister at the young age of 29. This was before he was made Congress or AICC chief. He was first Dalit to preside over a state and that too despite being youngest among all the chief ministers of his time. Similarly, Jagjivan Ram had the distinction of being India’s Defence Minister when the country won war in what became Bangladesh.

Thus, Kharge’s likely rise to the top Congress post is coming after a long break from the point of view of Dalit leadership in Congress; and he has quite a bit to grapple with given the deplorable state Congress is currently caught in. The high standards set by Sanjivayya and Jagjivan Ram in the past may well inspire him and give enough strength to the new Congress to meet the challenges that the party and the country are grappling with.

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