It's official. Mallikarjun Kharge is the Congress party’s first non Gandhi president in 24 years. As the votes of over 9000 delegates were counted on Wednesday, Kharge beat his rival candidate Shashi Tharoor comprehensively.
The result is a surprise to no one. Even though Congress spokespersons denied it till they were blue in the face, the Gandhi family was unofficially backing Kharge, a long time family loyalist and close aide.
It was evident when the two candidates went to file their nominations, it was evident during their campaigns where Tharoor complained that many state leaders were not even willing to meet him.
But now that the election is done, what next for the beleaguered Congress party? Many believe the election of the 80 year old Mallikarjun Kharge, seen as close to the Gandhis, means nothing will really change in the party.
Yes, the fact that this election has happened, and the fact that the party has a non Gandhi at the helm, means that the BJP’s attack on dynasty gets blunted. It also throws the spotlight on the lack of inner party democracy in other parties, including the BJP, which have not had party elections and choose their party presidents by “consensus”.
However, at a time when the Congress faces an existential crisis, Kharge may not bring in the radical changes needed to reverse the losses.
What the Congress needed right now was a fresh pair of eyes, someone who came to lead the party with an entirely new perspective, without the baggage of the family and it’s style of functioning. Of course no non Gandhi Congress chief could afford to annoy the Gandhis, lets be realistic here. But it’s a question of how many buttons he is willing to push.
It is not clear how much the Gandhis will interfere in the day to day functioning of the party, or as less charitable analysts say, whether Kharge will be a “remote control”. That description is also unfair to him and his own political background.
Kharge has been in politics for five decades and won every single election he has fought except the Lok Sabha election of 2019. He therefore does have a mass connect with voters on the ground. But will he and can he inflict the kind of dramatic change the Congress needs at this point?
Kharge’s supporters say he has a formidable political track record, which he does, and that he understands the party organisation well. However, perhaps what the Congress really needed at this point was a disrupter to shake it out of its slumber. But then, no one likes disrupters do they?
Unfair labelling of Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor had talked about how he wanted to decentralise the party and empower state leaders more, allowing ordinary workers access to leaders and so on. The fact is, we really don’t know what Kharge’s blueprint for the Congress’ future is. He has not spoken much on this except in vague generalities.
Tharoor also faced what I felt was the rather unfair criticism of being “elitist”. He is also a three time Lok Sabha MP and only we in India will judge a man “elitist” for being well educated and well spoken.
Frankly whatever the Congress has been trying to do in recent years has just fallen flat, trying something completely off the beaten track may have been a risk worth taking.
So does Kharge represent the status quo in the Congress? It is now up to him to prove the sceptics wrong.