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From the Opinion Editor: An election for the Congress party

As the Congress presidential poll hots up, our Opinion Editor gives an insight into the fight between Shashi Tharoor and Mallikarjun Kharge

Mallikarjun Kharge is widely seen as the unofficial official candidate. (Photo: PTI)

Dear Reader,

On October 1, Saturday, Madhusudan Mistry, returning officer, named Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor as the two candidates in the fray for the election of Congress president on October 19. With that, the contest for leadership of India’s main party of the Opposition has been kicked off. After nearly two and a half decades, it will have a non-Gandhi at its helm.

Or will it, really? With Kharge widely seen as the unofficial official candidate — a bevy of establishmentarian leaders and many of the G-23 rebels, too, have come out in his support — has the Gandhi family genuinely stepped aside, or back? Or will it still control the Congress, and not do so too? Those, of course, are the questions. But Tharoor’s candidature may already be stirring things up.

At the very least, it may end up pushing some ideas forward and into the open — in a party that has all but excused itself from the contest for ideas, internally and externally.

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Internally, Tharoor told this paper, “the era of the one-line resolution authorising the party president to do everything, that era may be over if I have my way”. The change he seeks is: To “take away some of the over-centralisation of authority and empower state-level leaders…”. While the Gandhis will continue to be “very significant leading lights”, it is clear that Candidate Tharoor stands for a renegotiation of their position in the party.

Externally, Tharoor says what the Congress has not said before: “I don’t think that everyone who voted for BJP in 2014 or 2019 is necessarily a die hard Hindutvavadi, or is permanently lost to us… So we need to bring them back…”. That is, Candidate Tharoor promises to undertake the hard labour of politics of forcing Congress out of its echo-chambers and preparing it to reach out and talk to voters beyond its traditional constituency.

None of the two ideas is staggeringly new or terribly insightful. It has been obvious for a long time now that Congress is losing its agility and mojo against a formidable opponent also because of the structure of its inner decision-making, or rather its lack of a structure, which basically translates into that drearily familiar cop-out — the one-line party resolution leaving everything to the discretion of a member of the Gandhi family. It is evident, too, that in a time when it is inexorably shrinking, Congress needs to find imaginative and thoughtful ways to engage voters from across the fence — notwithstanding the political polarisation, and because of it, and not just by becoming a paler version of BJP.

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Tharoor’s ideas may not be new, but the achievement of his candidature is that he has articulated them openly. In a party that has been turning its face away from the political challenge that confronts it, occasionally rousing itself only to take the BJP’s cue and do some me-too politics, and whose best hope seems to be that the Modi BJP will defeat itself by making a blunder or running out steam, this is a remarkable thing.

No matter who becomes Congress president — it will be Kharge, the way things are going — these ideas are now out there, on the Congress table, for all Congressmen and women to see. They cannot be wished back into the furtive corners and unlit crevices of the party.

Congress will get the president it deserves. But the country also deserves an Opposition that holds up its end of the polity.

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Given present-day realities — non-Congress Opposition parties have narrower platforms and vote shares that severely circumscribe and constrain their ability to take on the BJP at the national level, and in 2019, Congress lost 171 out of the 186 seats where it went head-to-head with the BJP — a Congress revival seems central to the renewal and re-invigoration of the institution of the national Opposition, so that it can play its assigned role in a constitutional democracy.

That role includes representing voices and interests that do not find space in the ruling party/coalition, offering an alternative to the politics and policy of government, keeping the government on its toes and accountable.

Whether they know it or not, the 9,100 PCC delegates who will cast their vote to choose the next Congress president on October 19 will be doing more than just that.

Till next week,

Vandita

Must Read Opinions:

Menaka Guruswamy, “Dhoni knows, we don’t”

Avinash Paliwal, “Revisiting Liecester”

Sanjaya Baru, “Rediscovery of the South”

Neerja Chowdhury, “The low command”

SY Quraishi, “Why we met the RSS chief”

First published on: 02-10-2022 at 05:34:16 pm
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