Kharge can be a good mechanic at best, he can't energise a Congress engine out of fuel

The Congress' new President faces seemingly insurmountable organisational, tactical and ideological challenges. Party insiders say his hands are somewhat tied.
Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge with former party president Sonia Gandhi at the AICC Headquarters. (Photo | PTI)
Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge with former party president Sonia Gandhi at the AICC Headquarters. (Photo | PTI)

What does the election of Mallikarjun Kharge as the Congress President mean for the party and Indian politics? Can he revive the party's dwindling fortunes, or at least arrest its downhill slide? Is he shrewd enough to carve his own space without threatening anyone else's?

The 80-year-old party veteran from Karnataka has the sagacity and experience on organisational and governmental matters to bank upon. But there is little in his report card to suggest that he can bring about the transformational change the Grand Old Party needs at this juncture.

During his first few days in the office, Kharge has given no impression that he is a man in hurry.

Acknowledging the "undisputed" leadership of the Gandhis, he accepted the resignations of the members of the Congress Working Committee and AICC functionaries in accordance with the convention. In the same stroke, he nominated all of them to a 47-member steering committee, which will function as the party's highest decision-making body till the next session of the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) is held.

So far there is no indication of when an AICC session would be held to elect members of the new CWC. The elections to the CWC were last held in 1997 at the AICC's Calcutta plenary session.

Immediately after taking charge, the new party chief made it clear that he believes in collective leadership and would seek guidance from the Gandhis if and when needed.

Elected after a contest with senior party leader and Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor, Kharge also said that he would implement the party's Udaipur Declaration and try to address problems of youth, farmers, women and small traders.

An organisational election in a political party normally does not stir public imagination in India. But the election of the Congress President caught attention because it was held under extraordinary circumstances.

True, it was the first time an election was held for the party chief's post since Sonia Gandhi's election in 1998. She retained the post till 2017, when her son, Rahul Gandhi replaced her, only to quit in a huff after the 2019 poll debacle.

However, what made the latest election out of the ordinary was that the winner, Mallikarjun Kharge, was not the first choice of those who call the shots in the Congress.

When the election was announced after a spate of electoral defeats and desertions by senior party leaders, it was Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot who was their pick.

Kharge entered the contest at the eleventh hour only after Gehlot backed out when Rahul Gandhi made it clear that he couldn't remain the CM, if elected the party chief.

By then an election had become inevitable because Shashi Tharoor, one of the signatories to a letter written by 63 Congress leaders to Sonia Gandhi two years back demanding organisational elections, had refused to withdraw from the contest.

Ironically, as the de facto defiance of the wishes of the Gandhis by Gehlot in Rajasthan exemplified during the first phase of the election schedule, the Congress today is afflicted by multiple woes.

In fact, the recent developments in Rajasthan are a reminder that embedded factionalism has led the Congress to lose governments in states through defections, further eroding its public support.

The Congress' new President faces seemingly insurmountable organisational, tactical and ideological challenges. Party insiders say his hands are somewhat tied.

Sonia Gandhi continues to be the chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP). As per the 1999 amendment, she is empowered to appoint CPP leaders in both houses of Parliament.

On the face of it, the sense of disarray might resemble the party's state of affairs when Sonia Gandhi took over the leadership of the party from Sitaram Kesri at the turn of the 20th century at a time the party faced mass desertions.

But Kharge inherits a completely different political situation as well as some of the Congress' unchanging, embarrassing warts. The party would need to fix these before finally deciding on who is to be its PM face in 2024.

In the second decade of the 21st century, the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not only swept two successive Lok Sabha elections but vastly expanded its footprint in states where it had no sizable presence.

The Congress, on the other hand, faces a decades-old organisational decay, with its vote-share sliding to around 19 per cent in two consecutive General Elections in 2014 and 2019 and dropping to either the third or fourth slot in 10 major states accounting for 320 Lok Sabha seats.

As Congress leader P Chidambaram has pointed out, in the Congress culture there has always been subtle difference between the leader and the Congress President. According to him, the leader's task is to provide leadership to the people and inspire them to vote for the party. The President's main function is to fix the nuts and bolts of the organisation.

At best, Kharge can be a good mechanic and repair some of the faults in the Congress organisation. He cannot be expected to energise an engine that has run out of fuel. Same as there.

(Yogesh Vajpeyi is a freelance journalist and media consultant. These are the writer's views.)

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