It is 1998 again in the Congress party. Electorally the party, struggling for survival,, would hope that it brings back 2004 in 2024.
1998 is the last year that the Congress party did not have a Gandhi at its helm – that was the year when Sonia Gandhi took charge as the president of the All India Congress Committee. Six years later in 2004 Congress won a handsome victory and went on to be the pivot of the ruling coalition for 10 years. It has been almost a constant downhill since. Gandhi handed the baton to son Rahul in 2017 after what was the longest stint ever steering the grand old party.
Mallikarjun Kharge is only the sixth president of the party to have been chosen by an election and not the consensus. Kharge’s ascent to the top job marks the beginning of a new era — an era that holds the official promise of being free of any interference from the first family that claimed to have been neutral even during the election, even though it did occasionally threaten to turn bitter.
A lot would depend on whether Kharge is his own man at the top or if he is, as many in the party fear, just a “rubber stamp” — an epithet once used for former prime minister Manmohan Singh. But just the fact that the Congress has a working president after three years and not from the Gandhi family makes Kharge’s election a cusp in the 137-year-old history of the party.
That is why Congress without a Gandhi is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
The Congress did not have a full time president since Rahul Gandhi stepped down owning moral responsibility for the debacle in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. In the run-up to that election and several times since then, a host of young leaders once considered close to the Gandhi scion have left the party and joined the BJP. These include Jitin Prasada, now a minister in the UP cabinet, and Jyotiraditya Scindia, a Union minister. The charge most frequently levelled against his style of functioning was that he was inaccessible, often turning a deaf ear to suggestions he did not agree with. Former Congress leader and now Assam’s chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma once claimed that leaders did not have Rahul’s undivided attention when they would meet him and he would be “busy feeding biscuits to his dog.”
That’s where Kharge’s appointment could make a huge difference — make the chair of Congress president accessible to party leaders. The Delhi office of the Congress president at 24, Akbar Road, has barely been opened in the past few years. For that office to become a fully functional nerve centre where future political decisions are taken, Kharge would need to source his entire experience of being with the party for 55 years standing by it through thick and thin. Nine-term MLA and two-term MP, Kharge has also served as the Leader of Opposition (LoP) in the Lok Sabha, in the Rajya Sabha and in the Karnataka assembly. But Kharge never could become the chief minister — a disappointment that his aides say he has often jokingly referred to during his hurriedly crafted campaign to become Congress president.
That record would hold him in good stead as the party tries to stop the exodus of young leaders across the country. The aura of “sacrifice” — the fact that he willingly stepped down from the post of Rajya Sabha LoP (one that comes with several perks) to answer the call of the organisation may give him a halo somewhat similar, if not entirely comparable, to when Sonia Gandhi’s “inner voice” had compelled her to turn down the chance to become prime minister.
Also read: Channi to Kharge, Congress’ Dalit outreach comes during crisis. Bahujans can see through it
Ties with opposition parties
Rahul Gandhi’s perceived lack of political heft has often been cited by opposition parties such as the Trinamool Congress as reasons behind their rejection of overtures from the Congress party, sometimes even affecting floor coordination in the Rajya Sabha. But as a veteran of over half a decade, Kharge has a natural standing and respect among his peers in other political parties that may help negotiate Congress’ case with opposition stalwarts such as Sharad Pawar.
However, a senior opposition leader cautions against taking such a view at face value. “To frame the relationship between two political parties merely on the personal equation of their leaders is simplistic. Politics does not work like that. Kharge is a well respected leader. All opposition parties have experience of working with him. But in the end, how two parties collaborate or not has to do with their respective political realities and what each brings to the table. Of much more importance may be who replaces Kharge as the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.”
Organisation man vs campaign face
It’s a tried and tested model for political parties to have one person at the helm of the organisation and another as the campaigning face of the party. Indira Gandhi held the latter role through a long line of Congress presidents. The BJP tried it during the era of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani and perfected it with the duo of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
Through the reigns of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi as Congress presidents, both roles were the mandate of the same person. Kharge occupying the president’s post gives the Congress a real chance to try that model once again. Rahul Gandhi, whose actions have suggested reluctance at taking organisational responsibility, is clearly revelling in his current avatar leading the Bharat Jodo Yatra — covering 3,570 kilometres from Kanyakumari to Kashmir over 150 days.
“He is sick of people coming to him to complain or to ask for something. That is why he is connecting so well with people here,” a senior Karnataka Congress functionary had told ThePrint.
With Kharge in the party president’s chair, Rahul Gandhi now has an address to forward those complaints to.
Views are personal.