Congress supporters attend a function during the party's Bharat Jodo Yatra, at Gundlupet, in Chamarajanagar Image Credit: ANI

It is perhaps the most riveting party election we have seen in decades but in so many ways also the most predictable. Mallikarjun Kharge versus Shashi Tharoor for the Congress president’s post. Far from being a fair contest, Kharge — the clear choice of the Gandhi family — is the front-runner.

Officially, party leaders deny there is a nominee being backed by the Gandhis. Speaking to NDTV just days ago, Shashi Tharoor tellingly said, “wherever Mr Kharge goes, there are grandees of the Congress greeting him, garlanding him … whereas wherever I go, there are ordinary workers, simple folks who haven’t received any such instruction”. So how do the two candidates square off?

Mallikarjun Kharge is 80 years old and one of the most prominent Dalit faces of the Congress. A nine time MLA from Karnataka, he is known to be a staunch loyalist. In his 50 year career, Kharge lost out the Karnataka chief ministership three times. But didn’t utter a word against the party.

OPN Kharge Tharoor
Both Shashi Tharoor and Mallikarjun Kharge are self-made leaders Image Credit: Gulf News

He was rewarded with leader of the party posts in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Fluent in Hindi, Kharge would be the first non Gandhi congress chief in 25 years, if he wins on the October 19. He started electoral politics in 1972 and tasted his first defeat only in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019.

When the Congress was reduced to 44 seats in 2014, Kharge got a huge opportunity by becoming the party leader in the lower house and leading the fight against the government.

Kharge’s non controversial past and generally soft-spoken nature are a total contrast to Shashi Tharoor. The well read, well spoken former diplomat has never been afraid of a fight. He contested for UN secretary general and lost. And he’s constantly in the eye of some storm or another but he’s never let that get him down.

OPN Mallikarjun Kharge
Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge Image Credit: ANI

An accomplished author, Tharoor is articulate, he is young and many would say an idealist. He spent nearly 30 years working with the UN before joining the Congress only 13 years ago. He has since been a 3 time MP including in two Modi waves in 2014 and 2019.

Rest of the party struggling

Nothing to joke about at a time when the rest of the party is struggling. The fact that he is fairly popular among the ladies probably draws both awe and envy from his colleagues.

With his clipped English accent, Tharoor is a Anglophile but he is also one of the staunchest critics of British colonialism, devoting a best-selling book to it and making a viral speech at the Oxford Union demanding reparations from the British.

He has also been very clear about his Hindu identity from the beginning, again writing books on the same. He also faces criticism for being elitist, hence the outrage over his cattle-class remark or the rather bemused reactions to his vocabulary. With 8 and half million followers on twitter, he is also very social media savvy.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor speaks to the media, in Nagpur on Saturday, October 1, 2022. Image Credit: ANI

Despite all this, Tharoor is very likely to lose the congress presidential election. Even those party leaders who want change are too afraid of letting the family go or openly supporting someone like Tharoor. Most have been clamouring for Rahul Gandhi to come back but would rather settle for a loyalist than someone who may change the status quo.

That’s not to take away from Kharge’s political career or his qualifications. But the fact is, by not keeping their choice secret, the Gandhis have put Kharge on the back foot already. And with a family loyalist at the helm, real change in the Congress is unlikely anytime soon.