Congress gets first non-Gandhi chief in 24 years in a cosmetic exercise

By Sudhir Kumar   

Apparently, the election was more of a shadow-boxing than a real fight for its result was a foregone conclusion. Essentially, it was a fight between Mallikarjun Kharge, the apostle of status quo and a firm loyalist of the Gandhi family, and Shashi Tharoor, the high priest of change, for the party’s presidential post, and it did not require an iota of ingenuity to know that the former would prevail in the contest that smacked of a ritualistic and cosmetic flavour. Kharge’s victory was all sewn up when he got the unspoken support from the Gandhi family and a host of party bigwigs loyal to the family while Tharoor, the main contender, ploughed a spirited but lonely furrow.

After a hiatus of 24 years, the Indian National Congress got its first non-Gandhi president as Sonia Gandhi, the longest-serving party president since 1998 (except the two years between 2017 and 2019 when Rahul Gandhi assumed the mantle),relinquished the top post she held both in its halcyon days and tempestuous times. Kharge, a Dalit leader from Karnataka known for his proximity to the Gandhis, trounced his opponent by a hefty margin in the October 17 elections. He secured 7,897 votes while Tharoor could manage 1,072 votes. Overall, 9,915 Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) delegates formed the electoral college to pick the party chief in a secret ballot, and over 9,500 cast their ballot.  

Incidentally, this was the sixth election in the Grand Old Party’s 137-year-old history. The third candidate in the fray, K N Tripathi, a former minister in Jharkhand, was a lightweight. The last presidential election was held in 2000 when Jitendra Prasada had suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of Sonia Gandhi.

The election of a new party president bristled with delicious paradoxes and contrasting traits of the two main contenders. The issue at stake was loyalty and status quo vs. change and freedom. During the campaign, Tharoor raised issues of uneven playing field though both candidates and the party maintained that the Gandhis were neutral. However, the ground reality was in disagreement with such a perceived notion.

The stamp of the Gandhi family on the election was embossed in so many ways. When the 80-year-old Kharge filed his nomination, his proposers included top Congress leaders loyal to the Gandhis, and they included Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, Digvijaya Singh, A K Antony, Ambika Soni, and Mukul Wasnik besides the G-23 ginger group members Anand Sharma, Bhupinder Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan and Manish Tewari. That was hardly the case with Tharoor, who was mostly welcomed by young but lesser known PCC delegates.  

Tharoor, who met Sonia Gandhi after his defeat to discuss the poll outcome, was told by her that it was not surprising that “people would back one of their own”, as if Tharoor did not belong to the party.

But that was not the only concern. Many in the party were opposed to the election per se; they, instead, made a case for a consensus candidate for the post. For instance, Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh said, “I am not at all convinced that organisational elections actually strengthen the organisation in any way. They may serve individual purposes but their value in building a collective spirit is doubtful.”

There were other instances also of leaders taking sides in the contest. In defiance of rules that prevented party office bearers to campaign for a candidate, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot came out in support of Kharge. Another Congress leader, Gourav Vallabh, lambasted Tharoor, saying his ‘only major contribution’ to the party was to send letters to Sonia Gandhi when she was hospitalised. His remarks were a reference to the letter sent by Group of 23 (G23) leaders, including Tharoor, to Sonia in 2020 seeking large-scale reforms in the party. Further,Kodikunnil Suresh and K Muraleedharan, two Lok Sabha colleagues of Tharoor from the state, openly opposed Tharoor’s candidacy. Muraleedharan said the state party would vote only for those who recognise ‘the prominence of the Nehru family’.

Tharoor was not naïve to know that the dice is heavily loaded in favour of his opponent. He described Kharge as a “candidate of continuity” and “status quo”, implying that the Karnataka leader was the choice of the present dispensation. “I am not surprised that the establishment is rallying behind the status quo. If you want the status quo, you should vote for Mr. Kharge. If you want change and progress with an eye to the rest of the 21st century, then I hope I will stand for that change,” he had said.

Still, in several ways, the election was both historic and shambolic. Historic, because the election was being held after a gap of more than 24 years in an ostensible move to slacken the stranglehold of the Gandhi family over the party by electing a non-Gandhi president, which would also end talks of ‘dynasty politics’. And it was shambolic because the fight was grossly uneven. Rules were flouted, theatrics were galore.

The election was preceded by high drama too. Initially, several PCC delegates made a chorus for Rahul as the party president, which he refused. Then, the name of Ashok Gehlot was suggested, but a large lumber of his ministerial colleagues in Rajasthan realised that it was a ploy to move the veteran warhorse to Delhi and make Sachin Pilot, his bete noire, the chief minister of the state. It was a brazen defiance by Gehlot and his cohorts and the Gandhi family had to stomach it. Later, the names of Kamal Nath and Digvijay Singh were floated but it fizzled out. Kharge was then asked to throw his hat in the ring, and he knew fully well that it would be a cakewalk for him against Tharoor. 

During his campaign, Tharoor said he represents change in the party which a leader like Kharge can’t bring about. #ThinkTomorrowThinkTharoor and ‘Embrace change, show courage’ – these were his catchphrases in a last-ditch attempt to cobble support for his candidacy. He stated that there was no ideological difference with Kharge and deftly called the Gandhi family an asset to the party. “Gandhi family and Congress’ DNA is the same…No (party) president is such a fool to tell goodbye to Gandhi family. They are a huge asset to us”. 

While making a strong case for change in the organisational structure of the party, Tharoor, an outspoken advocate for free and transparent elections within the party, was at pains to bolster his viewpoint. “For many, embrace of the new also seems to imply a rebuke of the old. I want to clarify in no uncertain terms that the change I envision is one that combines the wisdom of the old and the energy of the new,” he said. But his messages failed to curry favour from the electors.   

Despite his defeat, Tharoor raised some vital issues, especially the need for decentralization in the party. Noting that the Central leadership in the party is taking all the decisions, he stressed on giving rights to the lower levels of the organisation to take decisions. “All the decisions are being taken in New Delhi these days. It would be good for the party if the right to take decisions is given to the grassroots at the levels of the blocks, Zilla (district) and states,” he argued.  

The election was interesting in terms of the political background, disparate political journey, and personality traits of the two contenders. Kharge is a grassroots politician and a staunch loyalist of the Gandhi family while the 66-year-old Tharoor, who made a lateral entry in the Congress only in 2009 after a long stint at the United Nations, wears several hats – bestseller author, politician, and a former international civil servant, and is fascinatingly articulate, erudite, and suave. He has authored 23 books, including The Great Indian NovelAn Era of DarknessWhy I Am A Hindu, The Paradoxical Prime Minister, and Pride, Prejudice and Punditry: The Essential Shashi Tharoor. More than that, the former Minister of State for External Affairs and Minister of State for Human Resource Development has the gumption and audacity to call a spade a spade.

Kharge was born in a poor family at Varavatti in Karnataka’s Bidar district, did his schooling, graduation and law in Gulbarga. Tharoor, born in London, has a phenomenal educational background. Hailing from the Nair community of Kerala, he studied at premier institutions in India and the US, including St Stephen’s College in Delhi and Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts, from where he earned his PhD in 1978.

A leader with more than 50 years in politics, Kharge was elected legislator for nine times in a row from Gurmitkal assembly constituency. In 1969, he joined the Congress and won all the elections, including the 2014 Lok Sabha polls that witnessed the Narendra Modi wave that also swept Karnataka. He won from Gulbarga with a margin of over 74,000 votes in that election. A two-time MP from Gulbarga parliamentary segment, he, however, suffered his first electoral defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in which he was bested by the BJP’s Umesh Jadhav by a margin of 95,452 votes.

Tharoor, on the other hand, entered into politics after he announced his retirement following his second-place finish in the 2006 selection for UN Secretary-General to Ban Ki-moon. He was elected to Parliament in 2009 from Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala and has retained the seat for three times on the trot. He has not served on many party organisational posts besides being the chief of the All India Professionals’ Congress.

There are some more differences between the two. Kharge is not an effective communicator while Tharoor basks in the reputation of being a formidable orator when speaking in English. But then Kharge is a hardcore politician known for his probity in public life, is always politically correct and toes the party line. Unlike him, Tharoor is not a status quoist. Further, Kharge is an old-school politician who likes doing things the traditional way, while Tharoor espouses innovation and novel ideas. He was a pioneer in using social media as an instrument of political interaction. Till 2013, he was India’s most-followed politician on Twitter, until being overtaken that year by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, his social media escapades have often attracted criticism as well.

For the Congress, faced with an existential crisis after a string of spectacular electoral drubbing, the election was an opportunity to revitalise itself and pose a credible challenge to the PM Narendra Modi’s juggernaut electorally rampaging though one state after another. But then it was imperative to hold it in a manner without the powerful shadows of the Gandhi family looming over it. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the election appeared to be a fixed match — a charade that was sanctified and legitimised at the high pulpit. The opportunity has apparently been squandered. To retrieve the legitimacy of the election, the party needs to hold elections for the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party’s principal executive body, elections for which were held some three decades ago.  

The fact is the Congress could muster only 19 of the votes in the 2014 and 2019 general elections. It is in now in power in only Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan out of 31 states and Union Territories. In Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Jharkhand, it shares power with regional partners. To pose a formidable challenge to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), it needs to reinvent itself by infusing youthful energy and fresh ideas.  

For the nonce, the Gandhi clan can at least breathe a sigh of relief: Kharge will never be a threat to their supremacy and he can’t defy them at any stage as he has been an inveterate loyalist to the leadership all through his long political career.

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