India’s Congress Party Still likes the Old Guard

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

On July 14, 1942, barely a week before India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress’s new president Mallikarjun Kharge was born, its main decision-making body authorized Mohandas Gandhi to embark on a nationwide mass movement.

That movement was famously and succinctly christened ‘Bharat Chhodo Andolan’ or ‘Quit India Movement’ to dislodge the imperial British rule. By a remarkable coincidence, 80 years hence, at that very age, Kharge’s task is to reinvigorate the Congress Party even as its cadres led by Rahul Gandhi are engaged in ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ or ‘United India Journey’.

Although Kharge’s election was a fait accompli given that he was widely seen as the preferred candidate of the outgoing and probably retiring party president, Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, it still came as a disappointment to a small section of the party yearning for a fundamental change.

Trying to stir up that change was the suave Member of Parliament from Kerala and media darling Shashi Tharoor who has been among the most vocal leaders calling for a complete overhaul of the leadership. However, the party now has an 80-year-old whose vintage is pre-independence is causing many questions among those who want the party to reemerge as the main counter to the otherwise seemingly unassailable ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The first election for president in over two decades was being widely watched by many in India mainly because of the flamboyant presence of Tharoor, a former top United Nations diplomat and widely celebrated author. Notwithstanding that for the first time in 24 years, the party now has a president not belonging to the Nehru-Gandhi family, Kharge is being viewed as old wine in old bottle.

Of the total 9,385 votes cast by the delegates to the All India Congress Committee (AICC) Kharge received 7,897 votes or about 84 percent while Tharoor 1,072 votes or about 11.95 percent. There were 416 votes.

If nothing else, Tharoor’s push to make the party president election a genuinely contested one, is also viewed as part of a likely new phase of the 137-year-old Congress. It is expected that if all goes well, Kharge will be in charge of the party right until the time of the next parliamentary elections in India in 2024 and likely beyond.

Ironically for him, the national focus remains riveted on Rahul Gandhi’s 3700-kilometer or about 2300-mile walk from the southernmost tip of India in Kanyakumari to all the way to Kashmir. Until such time as the 150-day walkathon ends, Kharge is unlikely to grab any attention. In any case, he is likely to be a nuts-and-bolts president with the overarching vision coming mainly from Rahul Gandhi.

Being a nuts-and-bolts president was probably not Tharoor’s idea of party president. He has been forceful in saying that he was a candidate for change implying that his now victorious rival Kharge was not necessarily the same. The fact that Kharge comes from a generation that came of political age over six decades ago is likely to be seen by hundreds of millions of independent Indian voters as disappointing as they decide whether to oust Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his increasingly unvarnished party and anoint a new configuration.

It is widely understood within the party that Congress cannot do away with its near obsessive dependence on the Gandhis even though Sonia Gandhi is now getting in on years and has been unwell and Rahul has often come across as disinterested in a formal role. The ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, although being projected as a party movement, has the overwhelming stamp of Rahul Gandhi’s. It has gained much greater popular traction as it traverses through the country than it was anticipated. Gandhi and his fellow walkers have been attracting considerably enthusiastic crowds largely due to his affable and amiable disposition unlike Modi who generally exudes a surly unapproachability.

2024 is still about two years away and in politics that is an inordinately long time. However, to the extent that the Yatra seems to be infusing unprecedented enthusiasm within the party cadres it will make Kharge’s presence salutary albeit focused on organizational challenges.

Not known to be a compelling personality, he still has many of the anchored values and approaches that Congress needs in its leader as it approaches the next general elections.

In contesting the party president election despite his defeat Tharoor has paved the way for its future leadership. At 66, he is relatively young and his urbane, global background has a distinct appeal among the country urban and semi-urban electorate. At the same time though he does not enjoy a mass appeal of the kind Rahul Gandhi now does.

In effect, the party leadership still remains Gandhi’s first right of refusal.

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