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Five challenges before Mallikarjun Kharge: Reimagining Congress to bridging generational divide

The new Congress president has the tricky task of asserting his independence so that he is not viewed as a proxy of the Gandhis.

Kharge, like every other Congress leader, believes there cannot be any Opposition grouping without the Congress at the helm. (Express/Tashi Tobgyal)

Mallikarjun Kharge was elected Congress president on Wednesday, October 19, defeating the party’s Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor in a hard-fought contest for leadership but the euphoria in the party — its proclamations of inner-party democracy and digs at the opponents — will soon give way to the reality of the challenges that lie ahead for the 80-year-old veteran leader.

Barring once in 2019, Kharge has not lost any election, earning him the Kannada sobriquet “solillada sardara (a leader without defeat)”. His victory was expected, given the support he had from the All India Congress Committee (AICC) establishment. The leadership sinking their differences had joined forces to ensure continuity. Disruption, they felt, would be disastrous.

While maintaining the status quo is easy, the biggest challenge before Kharge is to transform the party to reconnect with the people and start winning elections again. The first non-Gandhi to occupy Congress presidency in two-and-a-half decades, he cannot afford to let his momentous election be a sideshow.

Although in the context of the Labour Party, what former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said last year perhaps rings true for Kharge and the Congress too. He said the party “won’t revive simply by a change of leader”. “It needs total deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do,” he added.

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The challenges that lie ahead for Kharge:

1) Reimagining the Congress

It is clear that the grand old party cannot continue to function in an old-fashioned way. While the party has every right to be nostalgic about its past glory and proud of its governance track record, the fact remains that it has to offer something new to the electorate to catch their attention and reoccupy their mind space. It cannot live in the past.

The political messaging of the party has to be fresh and delivery systems innovative. Many Congress leaders feel there is a lack of clarity on many ideological issues such as questions related to minorities in the context of Hindutva, economic approach and nationalism. And the view within the party is that it is deeply divided.

The question is whether to be a social democratic-leaning centrist party espousing liberal, progressive and democratic values, go slightly left of the centre, or follow a pragmatic approach without getting bracketed into any stereotypical models. On the economic front, the party seems to be unable to understand the social changes.

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The idea behind the Bharat Jodo Yatra is to project the party as a vehicle for all. Rahul Gandhi, in the last month, has met representatives of marginalised groups, activists, entrepreneurs, daily wagers, and delegations of small and medium businessmen. But the party’s messaging remains vague.

It has not been able to put forward an alternative economic and social model and is seen as one criticising the Narendra Modi government every step of the way. And the party has to come up with a separate plan to appeal to the voters in the Hindi heartland, a region where it has been facing repeated setbacks.

Electorally, Kharge’s first big challenge will be in his home state Karnataka. While the Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are just weeks away, Kharge will not be able to do much because of a paucity of time. As many as 11 states will go to polls before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and the biggest test before Kharge will be to power the party to victory in at least the major states.

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While Tripura, Meghalaya, and Nagaland will go to polls in February-March, Assembly elections in Karnataka are slated to be held in May. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Telangana will go to polls in November-December.

2) Independent or Gandhi proxy

The immediate challenge before Kharge is to send a clear message that he is not a proxy of the Nehru-Gandhi family. While Kharge himself and the Gandhis are conscious of the fact that any instance of backseat driving by them could reaffirm the perception that he is a lame-duck president and the real power lies elsewhere, the question is how will he assert his independence.

It is a tricky terrain that has to be carefully navigated. The Congress cannot afford any friction between Kharge and the Gandhis. After all, it is for the first time since the 1970s that the party will have members of the Gandhi family active but not holding the reins of the party. Many in the party, and of course the rivals outside, will be keen to project Kharge as a doormat president.

The party has so far made the right noises. Rahul Gandhi, for instance, said on Wednesday that the Congress president is the supreme authority in the party and every leader reports to him.

It has to be seen how Kharge goes about making decisions and ushering in changes as every decision of his — even body language — will be under the scanner and minutely observed and analysed to see whether he is acting under any external influence. A reticent leader, Kharge has a strong mind and independent views but believes in a collective approach.

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His ability to take everyone together will also be put to test. The Congress is getting a president from the Dalit community after decades. He is the second Dalit leader to hold the post after Jagjivan Ram. It has to be seen whether the Congress will try to leverage that and weld it with the politics of the Hindi heartland.

3) Opposition unity

Kharge, like every other Congress leader, believes there cannot be any Opposition grouping without the Congress at the helm. But the dynamics have changed. With the party struggling to revive electorally, many regional parties are displaying national ambitions. The challenge before him will be to reconcile the differences and project unity, at least symbolically.

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Kharge will have to grapple with a key question. Should the Congress try to revamp the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) by inviting some regional leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, and Uddhav Thackeray and giving them leadership roles? Sonia Gandhi is now the chairperson of the virtually defunct UPA and the Gandhis have let go of the Congress presidency.

Will she, and for that matter the Congress, be amenable to making some regional leader the head of the UPA or find an arrangement where leadership roles are carved out for some of them? Kharge is a veteran. He has the stature to deal with regional satraps such as Sharad Pawar, Banerjee, MK Stalin, Thackeray, and Nitish Kumar. And that will be an advantage.

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The point remains that despite its massive electoral slide, the Congress is still the only party in the Opposition ranks with a pan-national footprint. The others will have to carve that space for challenging the BJP. The Congress has managed to make Kumar and Lalu Prasad spell out that there can be no viable Opposition grouping without the Congress.

But the fact remains that one set of parties wants the Opposition unity to be formed without the Congress, the second one wants the Congress as a constituent, and another one accepts the Congress’s central role in it. Kharge’s task will not be easier on this front.

4) Organisational reforms

Another big test for Kharge will be organisational reforms. The first question is whether he will push for elections to be held for the Congress Working Committee (CWC). The Congress constitution says the CWC shall consist of the party president, the Leader of the Congress Party in Parliament, and 23 other members of whom 12 members the AICC will elect.

Election to the CWC, the revival of the Parliamentary Board mechanism, and the constitution of a genuine central election committee that decides tickets for the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections have been the key demands of the G-23 ginger group whose leaders have backed Kharge and ditched Tharoor who was also a signatory to the letter they had written to Sonia Gandhi in August 2020.

Elections to the CWC were last held in 1997 and before that in 1992, and on both occasions a non-Gandhi was the president.

Kharge was dismissive of the G-23. Asked whether he saw any merit in their demands, he told The Indian Express in a recent interview, “Wo toh baat khatam ho gayi (That issue is over) … They are all supporting me, they have become proposers now, are working in their states… When something is finished, why rake it up?”

Jo cheezen band ho gayin hain, usko aap mat chhediye (Don’t stir things that have died down). We all will work together. And whatever is possible, whosoever has demanded it, we will do. And because the election is on, I don’t want to talk about policy issues. That is not good either,” he said.

Kharge has repeatedly said that implementing the party’s Udaipur Declaration is his main agenda. It has to be seen how far he manages to make the party implement resolutions such as enforcing a “one person, one post” rule, bringing in young faces (those under 50 years) into leadership positions, fixing accountability, the “one family, one-ticket” rule, and limiting the years a person can occupy a position to five years.

5) Bridging generational divide

A major challenge before Kharge is bridging the gap between the young and the old in the party. Kharge was seen as the candidate of the AICC establishment; hence, leaders of all age groups backed him. But the cleft between young leaders and veterans is visible in many states, particularly in Rajasthan where the Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot tussle is simmering.

And Rajasthan is not alone. It is playing out in many states such as Kerala, Telangana, Goa, Delhi, and Punjab,

Shashi Tharoor’s candidacy did enthuse some of the young leaders and that perhaps was a signal that many in the party believe there is a need for change. While Sonia is set to take a backseat, Rahul Gandhi and his camp and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra are active and the challenge before Kharge will be to reconcile the aspirations and ambitions of the new leaders and the veterans.

While Sonia was always seen as a neutral arbiter when it comes to internal feuds, the question is if Kharge will enjoy such a status, or if Congress leaders will continue to make a beeline for Rahul’s 12, Tughlaq Lane residence in the national Capital. The Udaipur Declaration’s emphasis on bringing in young faces into leadership roles will make Kharge’s job much easier. And perhaps it was fashioned keeping in mind the decision of the Gandhis to step aside.

First published on: 19-10-2022 at 14:37 IST
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