The deadline for filing nominations for the Congress presidential election ended earlier on Friday (September 30). The Grand Old Party made it amply clear that its status quoist ways would allow for only shoddy cosmetic changes in how the party is run and that its first family – the Gandhis – would rather protect its stranglehold on the atrophying Congress than reinvigorate the party to fight the BJP.
The party did come good on its promise of passing on the title of Congress president to a non-Gandhi after 22 years but not before ensuring that the writ of the Gandhis will continue to run large over the party and its decision-making in the foreseeable future. The irony of a 137-year-old party, desperate for an electoral revival and organisational rejuvenation, rallying behind 80-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge to deliver the twin goals was not lost on anyone. That Kharge’s entry in the election has come when Rahul has been underscoring the need to respond to the ambitions and aspirations of India’s youth is now an inside joke in the Congress.
With the process for filing nominations now over, there are three contestants in the fray – Kharge, 66-year-old Shashi Tharoor and former Jharkhand minister KN Tripathi. The fight, if it could be called such, will primarily be between Kharge and Tharoor, given that Tripathi is barely known even within the party of which he wishes to be president.
Proof of Kharge’s win in proposers’ list
That Kharge, a veteran lawmaker and current Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, has the tacit backing of the Congress high command and is, thus, poised for a comfortable victory was evident in the list of 140 party leaders who proposed his candidature. Tharoor did manage to get 50 proposers from across the country but the list of his backers was shorn of party stalwarts. Congress MPs Mohd. Jawed, Pradyot Bordoloi and Karti Chidambaram, former Union minister Saifuddin Soz and former MP Sandeep Dikshit were among the handful of prominent party leaders who backed Tharoor’s candidature. Tripathi could muster the bare minimum of 10 proposers – all of them local delegates from his home state – that are required for a party leader to enter the electoral contest.
In sharp contrast, Kharge’s list of proposers was stacked with not just Gandhi family loyalists such as AK Antony, Ambika Soni, Mukul Wasnik, Ajay Maken, Salman Khurshid, V Narayansamy and Rajeev Shukla but also leading G-23 leaders Anand Sharma, Manish Tewari, Bhupinder Hooda and Prithviraj Chavan.
For Tharoor, the public endorsement of Kharge’s candidature by the G-23 leaders would have come as a personal setback even before the elections are held as he too was part of this group that had, two years ago, attracted the Congress’s wrath for asking Sonia to implement sweeping intra-party reforms, including a change of leadership. The three-term Lok Sabha MP from Thiruvananthapuram had personally reached out to Sharma, Tewari and Chavan much before the nomination process began but failed to get their backing for his presidential bid. What the electoral process may have achieved though is to neutralise the G-23 further as they can now be accused of turning their back on one of their own and giving up their one chance of establishing that their attacks at the current leadership weren’t personally motivated.
Significantly, even Digvijay Singh who had collected his nomination papers for the election and had announced his intention to enter the contest, bowed out in Kharge’s favour after it became evident that the veteran Dalit leader from Karnataka was handpicked by the Gandhi family. Singh, along with Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who was the Gandhis’ first choice for the election but ruled himself out the other day taking moral responsibility for the ongoing intra-party fiasco in Jaipur, was also among Kharge’s proposers.
Kharge, an overnight pick?
Officially the Congress has asserted that the Gandhi family – interim party chief Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra – is not backing any candidate in the election. However, the manner in which the octogenarian leader was pushed into the contest overnight and yet succeeded in getting almost the entire party top brass to back him, has made it clear that claims of the Gandhis’ neutrality in the election are farcical.
Singh, in fact, conceded that he had met Kharge just last evening to ask if the latter was entering the contest. “He told me that he has not considering it. This morning, I got to know from the press that he (Kharge) will be contesting and so I went to meet him again. I told him that ‘you are among the senior-most and most respected leaders of the party and I cannot even think of contesting against you; had you told me that you are contesting the election, I would not have collected the nomination forms’,” Singh told reporters this morning while declaring his support for Kharge.
Whether Singh was intentionally making it known that something changed overnight to push Kharge into the electoral race or if it was a disclosure made unwittingly cannot be said. However, if Singh’s account is taken at face value, it is evident that something did change overnight in Kharge’s favour.
Congress insiders told The Federal that Kharge was informed by Sonia only late last evening to file his nomination though the party’s organisational general secretary and Rahul Gandhi-confidant KC Venugopal had sounded him out earlier of the possibility that the high command may ask him to contest the poll.
Sonia reached out to Kharge after Gehlot was pushed out of the race due to his perceived role in engineering a rebellion earlier this week against the party high command, which had, reportedly, made his appointment as Congress chief incumbent on his willingness to vacate Rajasthan’s chief ministership in favour of his arch-rival, Sachin Pilot. Incidentally, Singh had decided to try his luck in the election only after it had become fairly certain that the Rajasthan chief minister may no longer enjoy the Gandhi family’s confidence in wake of the Jaipur fiasco.
Safer choice over Tharoor, Digvijay
Congress sources say the entry of Kharge as the ‘unofficial’ candidate of the high command also signalled that the Gandhi family did not trust the more independent-minded Singh and Tharoor to protect its hold over the party, particularly after Sonia’s bitter experience of reposing her faith in Gehlot to follow her diktats in the affairs of Rajasthan.
Tharoor, of course, was never the choice of the Gandhis as he has been outspoken about the need for reforms in the Congress and was also a signatory to the G-23 letter. His interviews to sundry media outlets over the past two days calling for greater decentralisation of power within the Gandhi-centric party and his views against the Congress’s high command culture wouldn’t have endeared him to the Gandhis either.
For Singh though, the put down by the Gandhis would have come as a personal setback – unless his candidature itself, as some party sceptics claim, was part of a ploy to emphasise Congress’s internal democracy or to buy Gandhis’ time to narrow down on a candidate post Gehlot. Singh has always prided himself as being a staunch loyalist of the Gandhi family, an assertion he made even on Friday while announcing his decision to bow out of the contest.
Congress insiders say Kharge, an unwavering Gandhi family loyalist, serves various interests of the Gandhi family. An octogenarian with some age-related health issues, Kharge is seen as a safe bet for the Gandhis as a stopgap party chief till circumstances are set right for Rahul, or Priyanka, to take over the Congress presidency. As the party’s senior-most Dalit leader, he also serves Rahul’s agenda of pushing people from oppressed communities to key party positions.
With Kharge’s victory almost certain, the Congress is expected to highlight his Dalit identity in the near future as it tries to renew its appeal among the electorally formidable scheduled caste community that has a sizeable chunk of seats reserved for it across various state assemblies and in the Lok Sabha. The strategy may, however, not pay off as the Congress hopes given how fragmented the Dalit community already is across the country in its electoral choices and the deep in-roads that the BJP has made within it through sharper political machinations.
Why he may not fill Sonia’s shoes
Congress sources also proffer the argument that Kharge’s wild card entry could also be with an eye on electoral gains in his home state of Karnataka, where assembly polls are due early next year and the party believes it has a fighting chance at victory against the BJP. Kharge had been an MLA in Karnataka for a record nine consecutive terms between 1972 and 2009, served as leader of Opposition in the state assembly twice and was elected twice to the Lok Sabha from Gulbarga in 2009 and 2014. He had been the party leader in the previous Lok Sabha and, when he lost the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Gandhis ensured his entry to the Rajya Sabha in 2020 where, earlier this year, he was appointed LoP.
Kharge has been a trenchant critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP. Though he may not be very articulate in Hindi or English, the Gandhis believe he has been a combative leader of the party in Parliament.
Party leaders close to the high command told The Federal that the Gandhis “ideally” wanted a person from one of the Hindi-speaking states to replace Sonia as party chief as the Congress has been losing ground to the BJP in the Hindi heartland with none of its leaders from the region occupying any prominent posts in the party nationally. An impression that the Congress had left out leaders from Hindi-speaking central and north Indian states, in appointments to key positions had been building in recent years. KC Venugopal, the party’s organisational general secretary is from Kerala, Kharge, the LoP in Rajya Sabha, is from Karnataka while Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the party leader in Lok Sabha, is from Bengal.
Gehlot’s projection as the likely successor to Sonia was, in some ways, meant to escape this image trap. However, with Gehlot out of the contest and the Gandhis seemingly not placing the same level of trust on any other colleague from the Hindi belt, Sonia, in consultation with her children, appears to have decided that the Congress must consolidate its space in the south where Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra has, so far, been getting a rapturous response.
Yet in doing so, the Congress has also made the evident blunder of once again leaving the Hindi belt– a region where the Congress faces its maximum direct contests against the BJP and will find it difficult to appeal to voters with a Kannadiga party chief who has poor oratorical skills in Hindi – wide open for Modi.