Tharoor Kharge
October 17: Electoral contest for the post of the Congress president will take place between Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor Image Credit: Gulf News

The youth want change, the party offers Kharge

Swati Chaturvedi, Special to Gulf News

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.


Number of Indian National Congress presidents since its founding in 1885

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, Mallikarjun 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.

Senior Congress party leader Mallikarjun Kharge, center, shows his documents as he files his nomination papers for Congress party president at the party's headquarter in New Delhi, India, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. India’s main opposition Congress party, long led by the politically powerful Nehru-Gandhi family, is set to choose a non-family member as its next president after a gap of more than two decades Image Credit: AP

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. 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.

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.

October 19
Results of the Congress presidential elections will be announced

Profiles — Kharge vs Tharoor: Staunch loyalist faces off with savvy outsider

Nidhi Razdan, Special to Gulf News

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?

OPN Mallikarjun Kharge
In his 50 year career, Kharge lost out the Karnataka chief ministership three times Image Credit: ANI

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. 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.

With his clipped English accent, Tharoor is considered an Anglophile Image Credit: Gulf News

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.

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.

Sonia Gandhi has clearly stated that anyone from the Gandhi family will neither be a part of the election nor support any candidate

- Mallikarjun Kharge

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.

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.

A supporter waves a flag of India's main opposition Congress party at a large Congress rally at Ramlila Ground, in New Delhi, India. Image Credit: REUTERS

How exactly is the Congress president chosen?

Sadiq Shaban, Opinion Editor

The Indian National Congress has a tradition of electing the party president since India’s pre-independent days. Obviously the country’s oldest political party prides itself on the tradition of internal democracy, which has resulted in as many as 61 presidents being elected since the party was founded in 1885.

Congress continued its tradition of holding elections for the top post after 1947 and the party actually has a fairly detailed structure for this. Its electoral college is composed of members drawn from the State or Pradesh Congress Committees (PCC) and All India Congress Committee (AICC). This college formally elects the Congress president. 

AICC is the central decision making body of the party and includes leaders elected from the PCCs, former presidents of the Congress party (who continue to be active in the party), leader of the Congress Party in Parliament and Leaders of the Congress Party in the state Legislative Assemblies.

Senior Congress party leader Shashi Tharoor, right, shows his documents as he files his nomination papers for the position of Congress party president, at the party's headquarter in New Delhi, India, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. India’s main opposition Congress party, long led by the politically powerful Nehru-Gandhi family, is set to choose a non-family member as its next president after a gap of more than two decades. Image Credit: AP

The electoral process

The Congress party has a comprehensive constitution and the elections for the position of the party president are guided by laws mentioned in Article XVIII of the document. On the D-Day (Oct. 17, 2022), each member of the AICC and PCC will be entitled to cast their ballot.

Others who are eligible to vote in the presidential polls include former PCC presidents and a certain number of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) from each state. These MLAs cannot exceed more than 5% of the total members of the PCC or 15 MLAs.


Number of party delegates who will vote to elect the Congress president

The election exercise is traditionally held in multiple places all over India. Voting takes place in the PCC headquarters of each state. Usually the counting of votes is done under a single transferable vote system (candidates are ranked in their order of preference) and the candidate with highest number of votes is declared president.

There are more than 9,000 delegates in the electoral college of Congress who are eligible to vote in these polls. The party has prepared identity cards for the delegates with QR codes embedded in them.

The results will be declared on Oct. 19, 2022. The last election for the post of party president was conducted in 2000 when Sonia Gandhi, the current president of the Congress, won against Jitendra Prasada.

Timeline of Congress presidents (1947-2022)
Timeline of Congress presidents (1947-2022) Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News