New Delhi: In many ways, Mallikarjun Kharge is an accidental Congress president — a man who stepped in at the last minute.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, touted as the original “favourite” of the party high command, had to opt out of the race following outrage in the party over his loyalist MLAs boycotting a meeting of legislators to pave the way for his replacement as the CM. Kharge went on to win what was only the sixth presidential election in the 137-year history of the Congress.
Yet, it’s common belief inside and outside the Congress that he will remain a ‘puppet’ or figurehead and the Gandhis will continue to run the show.
Whether the veteran Karnataka politician, who has been Leader of Opposition in both Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, is his own man or whether the strings are indeed pulled from next door — 10 Janpath, the residence of former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi — is something only time will tell.
But in the short period of a month — Kharge took charge as Congress president on 26 October — the two hallmarks of the Kharge era in the party seem to be a collective decision-making process and a no-nonsense approach of the man at the helm.
‘Darshan, once or five times, is darshan’
A veteran leader from Delhi got a taste of the no-nonsense approach, much to his embarrassment, when he went to meet Kharge for the fifth time and was told: “Darshan when done once is also darshan and when done five times is also darshan.”
Kharge, according to bystanders, then went on to recount all the instances when the two had run into each other including the occasion when the leader had come with a bouquet to greet the newly-elected president. The man has not come back since.
On another occasion, when a delegation from one state had come to meet him, he heard their grievances and, according to party sources, told them: “You cannot expect voters to vote for you when you cannot even stop your own leaders from leaving the party.”
He also pulled up a leader in a poll-bound state for airing his grievances in public and told him over a personal phone call that there are fora within the party where these issues need to be raised, not in the media.
The office of the Congress president at 24, Akbar Road, now bearing the words “Mallikarjun Kharge president” in small font, is in some ways reflective of the low-profile leadership style of the man in charge.
By the time Kharge enters this office, usually around 10-10.30 in the morning, he has already read about 12 newspapers and is ready with his own assessments and queries that sometimes catch people working with him off guard. The first half of the day, till about 2 pm, is spent in meetings with state and other delegations, reviews, etc.
Post lunch, he is back in office again around 4-4.30 and stays in office till about 9, say office staff. Among the meetings in the first month were three with diplomats — the British High Commissioner, ambassadors of Cuba and Vietnam.
A senior leader working witSoh Kharge told ThePrint: “See he has been LoP and a minister and has held many other posts but in some ways he is an outsider in Delhi politics, particularly in organisational affairs. That is why these first few weeks have been about settling down, meeting people, hearing their opinions and recommendations before taking any big steps.”
One of his first communications with Pradesh Congress Committee presidents was a letter asking them to hold events in their respective states for the Constitution Day on 26 November.
While Kharge has so far largely played the role of a patient listener, his office has seen a lot of old-timers and office staff dropping in to say hello and to take selfies.
“A person who has worked for many years with a former party president dropped by and asked whether he remembered him. Khargeji was very cordial. ‘Do you remember’ is something many people, especially office staff, preface their conversations with and he is always very charming. That is a new thing in some ways of staff members dropping by for selfies and photos with the Congress president,” said an AICC leader.
Earlier this week, Kharge’s office had an “open day” when he met every person who came in and listened to what they had to say. Sources told ThePrint that he met a few hundred people that day, who came in with all kinds of requests, including one for shifting a solar-powered hand pump. “Wherever possible, people were asked to follow up,” said a person in the know.
For all the openness though, his office has made it a policy that all his political meetings are one-on-one to ensure that the discussion is frank and leakproof.
Kharge’s ascension came in peak election season in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh and the much-delayed municipal elections in Delhi. Kharge did campaign meetings in Himachal and is slated to travel to Gujarat on 27-28 November, when he is expected to address four meetings.
On Saturday, he will be in Madhya Pradesh as the Bharat Jodo Yatra enters that state. Whether he will do another trip to Gujarat where Congress is battling Modi ‘magic’ and a ‘rising’ Aam Aadmi Party has not been decided yet. However, right after polling day in Himachal, Kharge also had a stock-taking meeting with about 20 MLAs from the state to understand how the voting went and what the prospects are for the party in the hill state.
He has also held meetings with allies like the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) which Congress leaders describe largely as “courtesy” meetings. While the first signs of Kharge beginning to put his own team in place came with the appointment of four AICC coordinators attached to the office of the Congress president, there is much still to be done on that front.
The Steering Committee, which is basically what was earlier the Congress Working Committee (CWC), is slated to meet on 4 December and deliberations will start for the eventual appointment of CWC members and general secretaries around February 2023 when the plenary will happen. CWC is the highest executive body of the Congress.
Much has been made of the non-inclusion of Shashi Tharoor, Kharge’s challenger in the president polls, in the Steering Committee but sources close to him point out that there is nothing to be read into it as Tharoor was not a CWC member and, as per the Congress constitution, CWC becomes the steering committee when a new president takes over and before a new team is appointed by him.
Kharge and the Gandhis
For Kharge the biggest challenge may be to establish his own leadership style independent of the three Gandhis — Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka — colloquially referred to as the high command. He has had meetings with all of them since taking over, meeting Rahul when he joined the BJY in Nanded and Hyderabad, Sonia in several events and Priyanka when she dropped in to meet him.
“There are many leaders who are being referred to him by Soniaji. People who are going to her with their issues are being told ‘please speak to the Congress president, he is seized of all matters and will decide on this’. He has obviously had discussions with them. The overall style is collective and consultative. He has a soft touch but when a decision is taken he is very firm,” said a leader.
(Edited by V S Chandrasekar)