By Sushil Kutty
To think that the Congress-led UPA was ruling India till just eight years ago is unbelievable. Looks like eight years were a lifetime for the Congress. An exodus of sorts has emptied the Congress of known faces. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi had to reestablish the clout of the Gandhi family all over again with a presidential election. The last Congress Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, is wheelchair-bound, a frail picture of his former self. Several electoral losses have marred the party’s reputation. Being out of power never suited the Congress. To say it differently, after eight years of Modi rule, things aren’t looking up.
That being said, 20 years later, the Congress has an elected non-Gandhi president, 80-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge, from whom a lot is not expected though he may yet surprise. The good thing for Kharge is that he has the unsolicited blessings of the Gandhi family―mother and son and the daughter―without which he would have been lame-duck from day one, which happened to be October 26.
Kharge faces a mountain of challenges, and among them, getting out of the shadows of the Gandhi family. Kharge is unabashedly the establishment nominee and that means smooth going for the octogenarian Dalit face of the grand old party. One Kharge advantage is that he keeps everything business-like, neither flippant nor matter of fact, which is fitting for somebody who happens to be the senior-most Congress leader.
Mallikarjun Kharge because of his seniority and because of the vast experience he has clocked, both in governance and in the organization, commands respect. Even Rahul Gandhi bows to Kharge’s age and experience though there is nothing permanent when it comes to Rahul Gandhi. If Gandhi can stand up to a deluge, not even seniority and experience will stand a chance.
Mallikarjun Kharge has Dr. Manmohan Singh to teach him how, when and where to tread. Rahul Gandhi was the one who had shown Prime Minister Singh how to tear up an ordinance and make a clean getaway! Also, how to take an insult and continue as if nothing happened. Fortunately, Kharge will have learned from watching and waiting, which appears to be something right up his alley.
That said, Kharge has a clutch of assembly elections in 2023, after Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh this year, to show his mettle. Will Kharge campaign in Gujarat and Himachal? He must, if he wants to send a healthy message. Rahul Gandhi is too triggered by Bharat Jodo Yatra to divert from his 2024 mission.
Kharge faces the challenge to chalk out for himself and the Congress a blueprint independent of Rahul Gandhi. Avoiding stepping on Rahul Gandhi’s toes will be difficult enough while delivering on the Congress President’s mandate. Don’t expect the “high command” to come to your aid. Kharge must have known beforehand that agreeing to be on the ticket would land him on thin ice.
One major challenge for Congress President will be to retain Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the two states where elections are due in 2023 along with Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Time is at a premium and Kharge has to marshal all his resources. In Rajasthan, particularly, the anti-incumbency would weigh a planeload.
In all these states, the Congress and the BJP will have direct contests, though Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party will go out of its way to play its nuisance role. As far as the Congress is concerned, the weight of expectations will be on Kharge. The Gandhis will step up to the plate only after the battles are won or lost. Kharge’s stoic manner should spare him from the histrionics if he loses the plate.
For, unlike Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kharge is not a showman. There is an uncanny stability to Kharge, somebody with an even keel in choppy waters. Kharge’s challenges also include setting the Congress in order and on course for the electoral challenges. If Rahul Gandhi with ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ is the face of the Congress for 2024, Kharge has to become the engine powering the party. Not Rahul Gandhi, it will be Kharge who will be taking on the Modi-Shah juggernaut in the states, and in the 2024 general elections.
Kharge’s first task as far as the party apparatus goes starts immediately. His CWC picks will give direction to the Congress. Will he be magnanimous to include Shashi Tharoor in the highest decision-making body of the Congress? Tharoor must in hindsight be thinking he shouldn’t have been as aggressive and flighty as he was when campaigning for the Congress President’s post. Tharoor must have learned a thing or two from Kharge.
That being said, with “internal democracy” back in the Congress post the presidential election, Kharge the “status-quoist” faces the challenge to not give any opportunity to the “high command” to complain. Nothing he does should change the status of the Gandhi family. On the day of the counting of votes for the Congress President’s election, Rahul Gandhi said he’ll take whatever role “Khargeji” has in mind for him, but Mallikarjun Kharge knows better. Come to think of it, if Rahul Gandhi gives Kharge a freehand, he will learn a thing or two on how to stay out of trouble while still remaining relevant. (IPA Service)