Mallikarjun Kharge
India's Congress party newly appointed president Mallikarjun Kharge gestures after addressing a press conference in New Delhi on October 19, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

India’s Gandhi-heavy Congress party does not want change

By Swati Chaturvedi, Special to Gulf News

As predicted, the Congress party impaled itself on the Gandhi family with ‘family nominee’ Mallikarjun Kharge, 80, sweeping the poll for the president of India’s oldest political party.

Sonia Gandhi, 73, the longest serving president will now hand over charge to Kharge.

Shashi Tharoor who had run against Kharge managed to get 1,072 vote against Kharge’s 7,897.

Congress leader Sonia Gandhi greets newly elected Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge after his victory, in New Delhi on Wednesday. Kharge, 80, seen to be the
Mallikarjun Kharge, 80, seen to be the "Gandhi-approved" candidate, won 90 per cent of the votes.

As you will recall dear reader, your columnist had already informed you of the foregone outcome of the Congress party’ in-house showcase of inner party democracy.

Rahul Gandhi, former Congress president, took a break from his Bharat Jodo Yatra and addressed a presser where he said, “Khargeji as the new Congress president would decide on my future role in the Congress party.”

Left unsaid was the fact that Kharge — as the new chief operating official (CEO) of the Gandhi management firm — would be a spokesperson of the family.

Tharoor ran a good campaign which seemed to fire the imagination of India, if not the Congress party. Initially camp Tharoor raised a complaint today on the counting of delegates votes from Uttar Pradesh but seeing the magnitude of the Kharge sweep, accepted the inevitable defeat.

Tharoor, a third term Lok Sabha MP from Thiruvananthapuram, had run on an agenda of change in the Congress party.

Clearly, the Gandhi-heavy party, which is struggling with an existential crisis since 2014, does not want change but, cling to the familiar embrace of the Gandhi parivar.

Currently all three of the Gandhi family members are in politics and the only one who has shown an inclination to retire is Sonia Gandhi.

So why hold an election at all? Senior Congress leaders who I spoke to for this report say that it was to prove a point to the naysayers such as the ginger group of the G-23 who repeatedly asked for inner party democracy and Gandhi family accountability after each electoral debacle.

Kapil Sibal and Ghulam Nabi Azad — the main leaders of the G-23 have quit the Congress party after making fierce attacks on Rahul Gandhi.

The likes of Himanta Biswa Sarma, chief minister of Assam, Jyotiraditya Scindia, currently the central minister for aviation, R P N Singh, Jiten Prasada, minister in the Yogi Adityanath government in UP, have also exited. Ironically those considered close to Rahul Gandhi were the first to desert him which reflects his judgement and quality of leadership.

Kharge was drafted after another Gandhi family loyalist Ashok Gehlot, chief minister of Rajasthan — only one of the two states that the Congress runs today — wanted to combine the job of Congress president with the post of Rajasthan CM.

Gehlot rebelled, leaving the Gandhi family high and dry. His rebellion left Sachin Pilot, his young rival without a future in Rajasthan politics.

So what next? Indian voters are not enthused by the decisions made by the Congress party and the Gandhi leadership. Only a circle of courtiers continues to advise them to carry on doing more of the same.

Upcoming polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh will have further bad news for the Congress as newbie Aam Aadmi Party is likely to eat their vote share in the two bi polar states.

Rahul Gandhi who has lost the party two general elections on the trot will continue calling the shots in the Congress without any accountability with Kharge replacing Sonia as a “face” to shield Rahul Gandhi.

Electoral debacles don’t seem to teach the Congress any lessons as Gandhi continues to be a dream opposition for Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and the resurgent BJP.

Will Kharge be a change agent? Senior Congress leaders laugh when you ask and then point to the Gandhi glue which holds the party together.

While still squatting on 19 per cent vote share, the activities of the Congress are of almost no interest to the people of India. A sad situation for the world’s largest democracy, which needs accountability from the government.

Swati Chaturvedi is an award-winning journalist and author of ‘I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army’.

No radical changes with Mallikarjun Kharge’s elevation

By Nidhi Razdan, Special to Gulf News

Mallikarjun Kharge
Kharge’s supporters say he has a formidable political track record, which he does, and that he understands the party organisation well.

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.

Nidhi Razdan is an award-winning Indian journalist. She is a Consulting Editor with NDTV and has extensively reported on politics and diplomacy.

Three main challenges facing Mallikarjun Kharge

By Sadiq Shaban, Opinion Editor

Congress party leader Shashi Taroor raises hands with newly elected president Mallikarjun Kharge in New Delhi.
Mallikarjun Kharge.

In the end, it came down to experience versus savvy. Shashi Tharoor, 66, got nearly 12 per cent of the valid votes in a one-on-one with Mallikarjun Kharge, 80, who won with 7,897 votes.

In all, 9,385 votes were polled but the party poll panel declared 416 invalid due to incorrect marking or other such reasons.

The last Congress presidential election happened 22 years ago, when Sonia Gandhi was challenged by Jitendra Prasad. Predictably, Gandhi won that time.

Fast forward to 2022, Congress has a non-Gandhi at the helm. The development is seen as a record of sorts because we now have a non-Gandhi at the helm of India’s principal opposition party — after nearly a quarter of a century.

The fact that Sonia Gandhi, in a break from convention, visited Kharge’s home in New Delhi to greet him offers the first glimpse that the latter may be seen a Gandhi loyalist, but the Congress first family is willing to offer him the freedom to be his own person, and take up the leadership mantle — for now.

Be as it may, the new Congress chief has a host of issues in front of him. As the octogenarian leader takes on a fresh mantle, three challenges stand out.

India’s opposition unity

India’s opposition unity is almost non-existent. In a democracy — one as diverse as India — that is a disgrace.

Given how formidable the ruling BJP is — not to speak of Prime Minister’s own personal popularity — opposition unity is paramount but it does not exist at the moment. That is because Congress has been unable to get its act together. Will the new boss do things differently?

At some point Kharge will have to take a call on whether to revive the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) by reaching out to regional bigwigs like Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray etc.

Congress organisational reform

The Congress is in a serious disarray. With a number of leaders making a beeline for the exit door, some of them citing the lack of elbow room in the party, an organisational revamp is in order.

Many would want Kharge to start with the shake up of the party’s top descion-making body — the Congress Working Committee (CWC). Elections to the CWC were last held in 1997.

Will he push for elections to be held for the CWC? If the reform of the party begins right at the top, the message that will percolate down to the ranks will be one of change.

A more youthful party

Kharge is 80. Sonia Gandhi is 75. Most of the Congress leaders are septuagenarians.

India’s median age is 28.4 against a global value of 30.3 years. It is time that Congress — with its countrywide base and close to 20% votes — injects fresh blood at every level and does away with the gaps between the young and the old in the party.

The fact that Shashi Tharoor managed to get close to 12% of the vote, despite Kharge being the de facto ‘establishment’ candidate, may have a subtle message in itself: Time to allow the youth a greater say is now.

Younger leaders — starting from Tharoor and the next gen like Sachin Pilot, Priyanka Gandhi could be allowed more heft.

Kharge might start with allowing a mix of experience and youth with the party’s Udaipur Declaration (that emphasised on bringing in young faces into leadership roles) as the benchmark.