Mallikarjun Kharge, Congress presidential election candidate, addressing a press conference at Gandhi Bhavan, in Hyderabad on Saturday. Image Credit: ANI

Currently the median age of India is 28.4 years, which essentially means that India is young country. The issues for this booming aspirational cohort of young Indian men and women is quality education and jobs.

If you want to win elections, you have to appeal to these young people, impatient with entitlement and privilege and looking for successful role models.

Enter, Shashi Tharoor, 66, not exactly young but, an icon for young India. Tharoor is a three-term member of parliament from Thiruvananthapuram — a very tough constituency. Tharoor is a public intellectual, an author with 23 books to his credit and has been an international civil servant in the United Nations in another avatar.

Tharoor has also eloquently debunked the colonial legacy of the British Raj and made a case of reparations. Young middle class Indians treat Tharoor as a rock star aspiring to his level of education and personality.

Tharoor was drafted in to politics by Sonia Gandhi, interim Congress president and is now running to be elected Congress president.

Shashi Tharoor
Young middle class Indians treat Tharoor as a rock star Image Credit: Supplied

You would reckon that the Congress party, which has been battling an existential crisis since 2014, having lost two general elections on the trot, helming a government in only two states in India (Rajasthan and Chattisgarh) and experiencing a talent bleed of huge proportions with young leaders voting with their feet to the exit would embrace Tharoor and change.

You would be wrong. Barring a miracle, Malikaarjun Kharge, 80, the “official” candidate of the Gandhi family will be “elected” Congress president.

Effectively Sonia Gandhi, 76, will be succeeded by an 80 year Gandhi family loyalist. Tharoor has a well drafted agenda and a slogan complete with #ThinkTomorrowThinkTharoor. But, tomorrow is precisely what the Gandhi family, which effectively controls the party, doesn’t want to think about.

Gold standard of loyalist

Before, Kharge was drafted as the gold standard of loyalist, the Gandhi family was let down by Ashok Gehlot, Rajasthan chief minister, who simply refused to resign from his job to be the Congress president. The rebellion took the Gandhi family and its courtiers by surprise. A succession plan involving Sachin Pilot had to be jettisoned as Gehlot indicated he would be no one’s autopilot.

While going to town on the fact that the party is having elections to decide on its president while the ruling BJP has just renominated J P Nadda as president, the Congress is ambushing its own democratic optics by Rahul Gandhi, former Congress president on his ambitious Bharat Jodo Yatra which is providing viral pictures every day.

As Tharoor runs an energetic campaign across India, meeting the Congress delegates who will vote in the election, Kharge is being supported by the grandee senior leaders of the party, leaving no doubt as to whom the Gandhi family prefers. Tharoor was on the stump in Mumbai and no senior leader turned up to listen to him.

Mallikarjun Kharge with Sonia Gandhi, Dr Manmohan Singh, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Adhir Ranjan at the Parliament House, in New Delhi, India Image Credit: ANI

The same leaders had jostled to attend the Kharge meet and greet. Rahul Gandhi has grandly said that neither of the two leaders running will function as a Gandhi “remote control”. But, the very fact that he needed to say this speaks volumes about the Congress party.

The organisational elections of the party was meant to showcase inner party democracy and a non Gandhi family leader after Gandhi said that no member of his family would run. A party leader even found a convenient hack for this, saying that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was married and hence not a Gandhi so she should become the president.

The “Gandhi glue” is the only thing holding the party together insist fervent senior leaders who I spoke to for this special story. Nearly 15 leaders from various states said that without the Gandhi family control there would be no party.

Sonia Gandhi, Rahul and Priyanka Image Credit: ANI

Not delivering on the compact

The earlier pact the Congress had with the family was that they would win elections for the Congress and in turn would control the party. The Gandhi family hasn’t won any elections recently and is not delivering on the compact. Yet Rahul Gandhi exercises total control on the party, its ideology and the issues it takes up, barring incidents like the Gehlot rebellion.

If Tharoor, who took permission from Sonia Gandhi to run for election, became president, the fear is that he would optically not be in total Gandhi control. That is a visual that could attract young people as incremental Congress voters but, paradoxically the party is not keen to showcase any leadership except for the Gandhi family.

If as it plays to a predictable script, Kharge wins, he is likely to be a yawn-inducing Congress president to the public at large, and nothing more than a manager to Rahul Gandhi. To those who are outside the Congress, it is a no-contest between the charismatic Tharoor and the Rajya Sabha selected Kharge.

In reality, Kharge will be the winner with a huge number of votes, similar to the thumping win Sonia Gandhi had over the late Jitendra Prasada the last time the Congress had presidential elections.

So the Congress party will vote for Kharge and the High Command and then complain that the voters don’t vote for them. The young Indian voter wants change and inspirational leaders. No vacancy for that yet in the Congress party.