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Beyond Kharge, Rahul Gandhi is the Congress Elephant in Room

Beyond Kharge, Rahul Gandhi is the Congress Elephant in Room

The much-hyped Congress party’s presidential election could be likened to that of a school prefect contest where irrespective of  how many candidates there are in the fray, the principal’s preferred choice almost certainly wins. The moment, party veteran Mallikarjun Kharge was perceived as the ‘unofficial-official’ choice of  the party high command,  there was always going to be only one winner. Shashi Tharoor with his stylish bandhgalas, signature hair flip and clipped English accent was the odd man out, a rarefied public intellectual attempting to break into the Congress’s charmed inner circle. The consolation for him is that he wasn’t totally wiped out like Jitendra Prasad when he contested against Sonia Gandhi in 2000.   

The media-savvy Tharoor had positioned himself  as the candidate of  change, a three time Lok Sabha MP who promised to do away with the Congress’s ubiquitous ‘high command’ culture. Tharoor had, after all, been a signatory to a letter in August 2020 demanding an organizational overhaul and elections at all levels within the party. In a party where any public display of  disquiet is interpreted as ‘rebellion’, Tharoor found himself  being identified as a G-23 (or Group of  23) rebel who was challenging the writ of  the Congress’s First Family, the Gandhis. Which is why even while filing his nomination for Presidentship, Tharoor was careful to profess allegiance to 10 Janpath, indicating that he had the ‘approval’ of  the Gandhis to contest the election.

The octogenarian Kharge, on the other hand, is a long-time ‘loyalist’, a term that is often synonymous with old style political sycophancy. The natural corollary is to see the Karnataka leader as a ‘rubber stamp’ president, someone who will faithfully adhere to ‘instructions’ from the Gandhis. The ‘loyalist’ tag suggests that Kharge, despite being a nine time MLA with an impressive track record of  never having lost an assembly election, can never really become a parallel power centre. No surprise then that Kharge was the fancied choice of  the ubiquitous  ‘Delhi durbar’ or those who derive their clout from their proximity to the Gandhi family.

It is this durbari culture of  rootless politicians lacking a mass connect who have been willing accomplices in the decline of  the party from a mass organization to a tightly controlled family firm. A process that began in the last years of  Indira Gandhi’s tenure when chief  ministers were imposed on state units from Delhi, this shrinking of  the party organization gathered momentum in the Sonia Gandhi years when key functionaries were mainly leaders from the Rajya Sabha, commanding disproportionate authority to their vote-catching ability. 

Which is also why the so-called ‘rebellion’ against the Gandhis quickly fizzled out this time. None of  the stalwarts calling for a rethink in the party’s decision-making apparatus could eventually walk the talk because they were prime beneficiaries of  the dulled status quo that has pushed the party to the brink. Previous splits in the post 1969 Congress occurred because they were engineered by leaders of  substance – be it a Devaraj Urs or a Sharad Pawar – who could at least call the shots on their home turf, or because a leader like VP Singh became a magnet for transformation. Now, there are no such change agents left within the party.  

Paradoxically, the one potential ‘revolutionary’ within the Congress is Rahul Gandhi, who has steadfastly rejected all pleas to return to the post he resigned from after the 2019 electoral debacle. Gandhi’s leadership style has been justifiably criticised for being highly erratic at times – recall the reckless manner in which he tore up his own UPA government’s ordinance in 2013, or the infamous hug and wink 2018 episode with prime minister Modi in parliament —  but the one issue on which he has been remarkably consistent is his professed desire to ‘democratise’ the Congress. Some of  his ideas have been fanciful – for example, holding US-style ‘primaries’ to decide on election candidates – but he appears the most willing Congress leader to shed past baggage and push for internal reform. Which might explain why he resolutely stayed away from interfering in any manner with the Congress presidential elections, preferring to focus instead on the ambitious Bharat Jodo Yatra. 

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But can Rahul Gandhi translate his ‘revolutionary’ intent into a robust plan of  action? This is where the Congress needs to realize that a presidential election with a predictable outcome, or indeed, a long march from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, however well-intentioned, isn’t enough to transform a party’s rapidly declining fortunes. The viral videos from the yatra will give Congress supporters reason to cheer but elections are not won through digital media clickbaits but away from the media glare through the arduous task of  a complete organizational refit. A non-Gandhi at the helm is a cosmetic change unless it is backed up by a genuine attempt to decentralize and empower local leaderships at all levels: the Congress desperately needs a set up where political authority cannot be concentrated around a largely inaccessible family-centric party boardroom.

In a sense, as a fifth generation dynast, Rahul Gandhi remains the Congress’s elephant in the room: offering both hope and despair. As the yatra has revealed, he is the Congress’s most popular leader within the rank and file by some distance, a party mascot who embodies ideological conviction and anti-BJP resistance. But his undefined role of wielding ‘power without responsibility’ ensures that the party is in no position to break the umbilical cord with a leadership structure that is rooted in feudal loyalties and well-entrenched cliques. 

Which is why the challenge before Rahul Gandhi is to use his unique position of  power and influence within the Congress to initiate a process of  structural and generational change that may make or break the grand old party. A battle-weary Kharge as president is at best a stop-gap arrangement but not the long-term answer to the Congress’s existential crisis. Eventually, it is for Rahul Gandhi to decide: is he the de facto leader of  the old-style ‘durbari’ Congress or is he a radical political activist, someone willing to risk his own privileged position to build anew with fresh talents and energies? Post-script: Mallikarjun Kharge may not enthuse ‘new’ India but his life story is no less compelling to that of  prime minister Modi. Son of  a mill worker, from a humble Dalit family, he is a self-made politician who first made his mark as a labour union leader in Gulbarga district. As he told me in an interview, “I am not a naamdar (elite) but a genuine kaamdar (worker)!”   

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