Kharge wins Congress presidency, Tharoor gains stature

Kharge wins Congress presidency, Tharoor gains stature

Expected as it was, Mallikarjun Kharge defeated Shashi Tharoor by a massive margin of 6,825 votes to succeed Sonia Gandhi as the Congress party’s first non-Gandhi president since 1998. The 80-year-old party veteran from Karnataka, widely seen as the unofficial pick of the Gandhi family in the contest, polled 7,897 votes against the 1,072 votes secured by the 66-year0old Lok Sabha MP from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram.

In an exercise unique to the Congress, over 9,300 party delegates from across the country had cast their votes on October 17 to elect their president. The last election for the party’s presidency was conducted in 2000 when Sonia Gandhi defeated Jitendra Prasada. Rahul Gandhi, who assumed the Congress presidency in 2017 as a unanimous choice of the party, had relinquished the post after leading the party to a rout in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, following which Sonia had returned out of semi-retirement to lead the Congress as its interim chief.

A tough time to be party president

Kharge will assume the Congress presidency at a time when the Grand Old Party is facing its worst crisis, both electorally and organisationally. It has been hemmed in by successive electoral defeats, mostly at the hands of a still ascendant BJP, as well as rising dissent within and attrition from its ranks.

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

With the party’s leadership issue now settled, Kharge will have to hit the ground running to revive the Congress. Given the dire straits that the Congress has been in for the past several years, the road ahead for the Congress president is bound to be a bumpy one. The electoral challenges aside (and these will come within months as Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat are both bound for polls), Kharge has a lot of organisational matters to iron out, including the recurring demands for internal elections for picking Congress Working Committee (CWC) members and other office bearers at various levels, as well as the still unresolved turf war between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan.

As someone who will begin his tenure in the backdrop of a sustained campaign that sought to delegitimize his candidature and political stature, earned through five decades in public life, by projecting him merely as a ‘Gandhi family proxy’, ‘Dalit face’, aging leader or a safe choice, Kharge will also have to work under the added pressure of disproving his critics.

Looking ahead

How Kharge’s five-year term as Congress president pans out would depend as much on his own ability to navigate the party through its inherent contradictions, conflicting ambitions of its leaders and characteristic inertia as it would on the willingness and appetite of the Gandhi family – Sonia, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra – in breaking the impression of remote-controlling the party.

Notwithstanding stern denials by the party about the Gandhi family’s neutrality in the just concluded election, there is little doubt that Kharge entered the fray only after he was vetted by the troika of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka. It is evident that he wasn’t the family’s first choice for the position – the Gandhis had wanted Ashok Gehlot to contest but he adroitly avoided the ominous task – nor was he vying for it. However, the manner in which practically the entire top brass of the party – CWC members, senior office bearers, host of party MPs close to the Gandhis and even members of the so-called G23 rebel faction – proposed Kharge’s candidature against Tharoor, made it clear that the veteran from Gulbarga had the blessings of the troika.

Kharge’s resounding victory would obviously give the Gandhis the reassurance that despite attacks against their leadership within the party over the past three years, their writ still runs large over the Congress.

Time to toil

By holding internal elections for the party’s presidency and staying out of the contest despite three members of their family being politically active, the Gandhis have not only distinguished the Congress from other parties where the chief’s post is bestowed through arbitrary nomination or by virtue of lineage, but also established afresh their pre-eminence within the GOP. But now that the Gandhis have done so, they must also toil, as hard as Kharge will no doubt need to, to build the impression that the Congress isn’t captive to one dynasty and has, in practice and not just name, a president who can function independently even if he does seek the family’s counsel on key organisational matters and may at times be at variance with it.

Also read: Congress president will decide on my role, says Rahul Gandhi after slip-up

Though Kharge’s victory was a foregone conclusion, the party’s presidential election did bear out inescapable frustrations within a section of ordinary Congress workers as well as leaders. Tharoor’s tally of 1,072 votes is significantly higher than candidates who had challenged the perceived frontrunner for presidency in the last two elections that the Congress conducted for the post. In the 2000 election, Jitendra Prasada polled just 94 votes against Sonia’s 7,448 votes. In the 1997 poll, Sitaram Kesri secured over 6,200 votes while his challengers, Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot – leaders of far greater political cunning and stature than Tharoor – got only 884 and 354 votes, respectively.

Tharoor’s campaign was based on the promise of change by dismantling the Congress’s high command culture, decentralising power and giving greater representation within the organisation to youth and women, among others. The merit in these promises cannot be discarded in a cavalier way nor can the fact that this manifesto got Tharoor 1000+ votes in an Electoral College comprising Congress members who evidently believed that their party’s current style of functioning needs to change if the GOP is to survive.

Tharoor’s vision

It would only go to Kharge’s credit and play to his advantage if he strives to implement at least some of Tharoor’s vision for the Congress. Similarly, the new Congress president would also do well to be magnanimous in victory and not alienate Tharoor simply because the latter put up a valiant and imaginative fight that seemingly challenged the status quo the Gandhis, particularly Sonia, simply refused to disturb over the years. Tharoor, on his part, must be equally open to working within a Kharge-led Congress while trying to get his ideas implemented and let the incessant complaining that characterized his campaign be a thing of the past.

As a Congress leader who entered the presidential contest despite knowing that the odds were heavily stacked against him, Tharoor has undoubtedly come out looking stronger even in defeat. The mere act of pushing his candidacy and then standing his ground shows Tharoor in much better light than any of the self-proclaimed stalwarts of the G-23 – or at least the few from the grouping who remain with the party such as Anand Sharma, Manish Tewari, Bhupinder Hooda and Prithviraj Chavan. These leaders had spent the past two years bitterly criticising the Congress’s established order but chickened out when it came to actually stand for party president through a campaign based on their avowed panacea for the party’s ongoing crisis.

Appeal to work together

In his brief statement to the press hours after being named winner, Kharge spoke as candidly for the need for a united Congress as he did on the need for his party to fight the BJP. “We have to all work together as party workers. No one is big or small in the Congress, we are all equal,” Kharge said.

At a time when the Congress has been hit hard by a lack of organisational cohesion, Kharge’s message was one for unity, reconciliation and rapprochement. He must now work to put this message into practice.

Read More
Next Story