The Grand Old Party has a knack for scripting soap operas on the fly. It calls for great creative screenplay writing skills. While it may or may not deliver electoral success, unbridled entertainment is usually assured. Nothing else can explain the roller-coaster bumpy ride that was engineered by the current Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot.
Putatively favoured by the Congress High Command as the potential Congress president, the avaricious Gehlot wanted to kill two birds with one stone. The supposedly canny politician wanted both the coveted positions (he dreads Sachin Pilot’s brio and charisma will obliterate his legacy in the desert state) but bit more than he could chew. Dumped unceremoniously by Sonia Gandhi for instigating an internal rebellion in his own party in Rajasthan in an atrocious manifestation of political naivete, Gehlot’s departure created a conundrum. Who, then, could be a more compliant compromised candidate? With Shashi Tharoor publicly stating his intention for the top job, the choice of a suitable lame-duck status quoist had clearly narrowed down to the usual suspects — Mallikarjun Kharge, Mukul Wasnik, Digvijay Singh, etc. Not surprisingly, despite the melodramatic cameo appearance of Digvijay Singh, it is Kharge who has emerged as the “unofficial official” candidate of the Congress. It is a missed opportunity of gargantuan proportions.
Congress has been correctly castigated for remaining in an organisational torpor for over two decades. This was a perfect platform for the much-delayed organisational transformation, in the absence of which the party has been electorally drubbed into a humiliating side corner of the political ecosystem. The Gandhis not contesting for Congress president was a salutary signal that the party would at least belatedly abandon its dynastic character and usher in democratic decision-making within. Of course, there was always the fear that there would be an inanimate puppet on the string candidate, who would be a glorified courtier. Kharge may be a seasoned veteran, but he is hardly the combative, inspirational and visionary leader of a young India that is perpetually restless, immeasurably hungry and prodigiously alert to the goings-on.
I am assuming Rahul Gandhi has discovered that already during his 3,500-km long Bharat Jodo Yatra, which is an ambitious programme that must be applauded. That is why the choice of Kharge is baffling. It also begs a more straightforward question: Why could not Shashi Tharoor be the consensus candidate? This is why the Congress with immaculate certitude always walks into the BJP courtyard; the latter’s rhetoric of “remote control” management gathers credibility. It makes the entire election process, delayed by several years, look shambolic.
Let us be blunt. A head-to-head Tharoor vs Kharge is a no-contest. Tharoor is not just a suave sophisticated English-speaking author and speaker who can captivate Buckingham Palace and the avocado-on-toast elite, he can also charm the youth, urban middle-class and India Inc. — three critical constituencies that have evidently divorced the Congress of late. Besides, his extraordinary understanding of the Idea of India (which mirrors Congress’s ideology) would help the party take on the majoritarian populism and meretricious hyper-nationalism of the BJP. Kharge, with due respect, does not tick too many boxes. That is why I have publicly proposed that the Congress must not be shy of its Gandhi family obsession, but must also decentralise power by creating a trifecta of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Sachin Pilot and Shashi Tharoor at the helm. But running the party via legerdemain, is bad optics. And only perpetuates the fault lines.
Bottom-line: The Congress needs a Congress President who can help it win the 2024 general elections, and as many state elections before that. What it does not need is a pallbearer of bland homilies and darbari subservience. The fact that several members of the G-23 who were once vocal when it came to demanding urgent internal reforms and a change in political leadership have meekly acquiesced with the “official candidate” is symptomatic of the gigantic problems confronting the Congress. Leaders within the party have for several years gotten accustomed to living within a comfort zone. Risk-taking has vanished as an attribute or a political strategy. But what Congress must note is that reinvention is never done in easy instalments — resurrection must be spectacular. At stake is the future of a great nation which is being ruthlessly railroaded by an authoritarian regime that has shed all inhibitions about its autocratic predilections.
On October 19, 2022, we will know how the party that inspired Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr has made its choice.
The writer is a former spokesperson of the Congress. He was dismissed from his post in June 2020.