Even as Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s long march, the “Bharat Jodo Yatra” (Unite India March), enters its second month after clocking in 720 kilometers — it began on September 7 — another development in the Congress Party, the upcoming election for the post of the party president, is vying for media and public attention.
In the fray for the October 17 election are two Congress parliamentarians — the veteran Mallikarjun Kharge (80) and the relatively more youthful diplomat-turned-politician Shashi Tharoor (66). For the first time in 25 years, the Congress is poised to have a non-Gandhi family Congressman at the helm.
President of the Congress between 2017 and 2019, Rahul quit the post accepting moral responsibility for the party’s dismal performance in the 2019 general election. His mother Sonia Gandhi, who was the longest-serving party president (1998-2019), stepped in as interim president and remains in the post to date.
India’s Grand Old Party has long been criticized for being a Nehru-Gandhi family fiefdom. Six members of the family — Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi – have led the Congress party. In the 137 years of the Congress’ existence, Nehru- Gandhi family members have headed the party for over 50 years.
In a bid to counter criticism of the Gandhi family’s stranglehold over the party, Rahul had said that the party should select a non-Gandhi as the party chief.
Although several Congress leaders and party workers were urging him to reconsider his decision, Rahul made it clear some weeks ago that neither he nor other members of his family would be contesting the election.
Kharge is widely seen as the preferred “consensus candidate” enjoying the support of senior Congress leaders and even the party’s high command. Interestingly, his nomination has received the support of the Group of 23 (G-23) senior Congress leaders, the so-called “rebels” who had in an open letter to Sonia in August 2020 asked for systemic changes in the party.
Tharoor, who was part of the G-23, is perceived as the “ambitious” one since the old guard in the party would have preferred a consensus forming in favor of Kharge. Senior Congress leader Kumari Selja publicly urged Tharoor to withdraw from the polls but the latter has consistently maintained that “a democratic election will do good for the party.”
While both candidates are from South India — Kharge is from Karnataka while Tharoor is from Kerala — the two could not be more different from each other. Kharge is the leader of the opposition in the upper house of Parliament. Prior to this, he was the leader of the Congress in the lower house of parliament. He has won 11 elections, both at the state and parliamentary levels, since 1972. As a Congressman who has weathered several storms, he knows the workings of the party well. He is also known to be a staunch Gandhi family loyalist.
Tharoor had a 29-year successful career in the United Nations. After a failed bid for the post of U.N. Secretary-General in 2007, he stepped into Indian politics and joined the Congress. The diplomat-turned-politician won three successive parliamentary elections from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. His oratory, erudition and administrative abilities appeal to that segment of Congress who want dynamic and youthful leadership for the party.
Comparing his approach to that of Kharge, Tharoor tweeted “… the differences are on how to take the party forward & mount a credible challenge to BJP in 2024,” adding the hashtag, #ThinkTomorrowThinkTharoor.
Incidentally, there was considerable drama in the run-up to the filing of nominations. The strongest contender, Rajasthan Congress Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, left the presidential race since Rahul made it clear that the “one man, one post” rule would apply. Since Gehlot was opposed to quitting as chief minister and his supporters in the state too balking at the idea, a rebellion by Gehlot’s supporters seemed likely.
With Gehlot pulling out, another Congress veteran, former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh indicated interest but pulled back after Kharge emerged as a strong contender.
Kharge appears the ideal choice for the Congress party. A Dalit leader and from Karnataka, which will vote in state assembly elections next year, Kharge as Congress president can only help to boost the party’s electoral prospects in the state where the ruling BJP is faced with severe anti-incumbency.
For most people, the outcome of the presidential polls is a foregone conclusion.
Now with the election process finally underway speculation is rife over the new president’s role.
At a press conference in the southern state of Karnataka where the yatra is in progress currently, Rahul was asked whether the non-Gandhi party president would be “remote controlled” by the Gandhis. “Both the people who are standing (in the elections) have a position, perspective, and are people of stature and are people of understanding. I don’t think any of them is going to be a remote-control chief,” Rahul said in response, adding that the question was “insulting to both of them [the candidates].”
Yet speculation persists over the new president’s authority. Will he be a de jure leader while the decision-making authority will be with the Gandhis?
With all its flaws, it must be acknowledged that unlike other political parties, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress is holding an election to determine who will lead the party. There is still a process where party delegates will cast their votes to elect a party president. About 9,000 Congress delegates will be casting their votes on October 17 to choose the president.
This is the first time since the Congress was defeated by the Narendra Modi-led BJP in 2014 that the Congress, thanks to the upcoming party presidential polls and the ongoing yatra, is drawing unprecedented public attention.
The massive outpouring of public support for Rahul’s march has stumped not just the naysayers but the BJP too.
The Rahul-led march is clearly targeting the hate politics of the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and appears to have forced the latter to rejig its image. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently reached out to Muslim intellectuals and called for an end to the discriminatory caste system in Hinduism, prompting the Congress to describe these gestures as the impact of the yatra.
The fact that the march is garnering such wide support from ordinary people even in BJP-ruled Karnataka and changed people’s perception of Rahul from a disinterested leader to an empathetic one who connects with the masses, has surprised even his sharpest critics.
Over the years, the BJP and the big media houses who pander to the ruling party, have painted Rahul as a “pappu” (loser).
After marching through three states so far and with nine more ahead, Rahul’s long march, which will culminate in Kashmir next year, is likely to result in a positive image makeover for the Congress leader before the 2024 general elections.
So the party is hopeful that with a non-Gandhi taking over as the 88th President of the All India Congress Committee party headquarters at 24, Akbar Road in New Delhi, it will be able to blunt the many barbs directed at it by its political opponents. Alongside this, a party cadre that is rejuvenated by the success of the march would make the party more battle-ready to take on the now seemingly invincible Modi and the BJP in 2024.