Among the immediate and urgent challenges facing the Congress and its new non-Gandhi president are the Assembly elections in Gujarat and HP
The Congress president’s election was free and fair, which is as it should be in a democratic polity. However much the detractors or political enemies of the party may have wanted it to be a sham, that it was not was affirmed by the candidate who lost, Shashi Tharoor, who said the elections were held on a “level playing field”.
Does that make Mallikarjun Kharge a fully independent president and does that delink the Gandhis — Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka — from the Congress’ organisational and political management? It makes Mr Kharge an independent power within the Congress, but it doesn’t mean the Gandhis will not exert considerable power and influence, going forward. And that would be entirely normal.
As former party chiefs, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi have a responsibility to join Mr Kharge and the new team he puts together in reconstructing the shambolic party, with its factions, tensions and wayward, indisciplined leaders in the states and at the national level. How that relationship will structure itself, what frictions may arise, or the amity that adds strength to the idea of collective leadership will become obvious very soon.
Among the immediate and urgent challenges facing the Congress and its new non-Gandhi president are the Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. In both states, the Congress is perhaps the strongest challenger to the BJP, despite the AAP’s efforts to wrest away chunks of voters, dividing the anti-BJP vote and giving that party another term.
The election of the president was quite an achievement for the Congress, which has dithered over making any change for years. The Gandhis have exited from heading the organisation; an old warhorse and a Dalit leader has won fair and square. This is what the Group of 23 wanted when they told the party that things must change. The group was formed in August 2020, after the Lok Sabha debacle and Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as president and Sonia Gandhi taking over as interim president.
The election and how Mr Kharge functions will be a challenge to the BJP. To begin with, it proves the BJP wrong. Its chest-thumping claims about being a democratic party and not a fiefdom controlled by a dynasty will now have to be reworked to reflect Mr Kharge’s election as president. The strategy of juxtaposing itself as an efficient, focused and fully disciplined organisation in contrast to the Congress, that is so plagued by disaffection and defections that it keeps losing the plot as the dynasty is interested in nothing other than perpetuating its control must be revised.
It will be very awkward indeed for the BJP to explain why J.P. Nadda is all too obviously a figurehead and that real power in the party is vested in Narendra Modi and Amit Shah should it continue to pursue with the narrative that the Gandhis control the Congress, regardless of who is its president. If there’s a power behind the throne in the Congress, so too is there a power behind Mr Nadda. Amit Shah’s role as mastermind and extraordinary strategist has been built up by the BJP. There is very little room it has left for itself to deny the party is run by the Modi-Shah duo.
If the Congress is savvy, it will leverage the elections to present itself to voters and opinion leaders across India as a democratic organisation that has the capacity to accommodate and respect debate, differences in views, dissent and even rebellion. The chronology of the election covers it all -- the G-23 emerged as a group of dissidents; it raised a lot of issues on how the party was functioning and it listed how it thought the party should function. There were rebels within the G-23: some like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Kapil Sibal, who quit the party, as did Sunil Jakhar, Ashwani Kumar, R.P.N. Singh, Jaiveer Shergil. In the states, from Goa to Assam, from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, there has been a constant stream of leaders and workers who left the Congress, in the belief that the party was a sinking ship.
It is therefore Mr Kharge’s challenge as much as that of the Gandhis, who like Mr Modi and Mr Shah are the party’s star campaigners, to stop it from haemorrhaging, get it back to being an outfit that is functional rather than dysfunctional. For the past two years, if not longer, the Congress has been in limbo most of the time, with Rahul and Sonia Gandhi incommunicado for whatever reasons.
The election in Himachal Pradesh is just weeks away, and Mr Kharge’s election as president doesn’t give him enough time to take charge of the party and strategise on what it needs to do. He doesn’t have breathing space to strategise on the Gujarat elections either. He will nevertheless have to meet the challenges and take the blame when things go wrong for the party, as they seem likely to.
It is true that Rahul Gandhi as star campaigner is successfully leading the Bharat Jodo Yatra, but he is far away from Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. For him to opt out of the yatra at this point will damage the march and affect the long-term fortunes of the Congress. It is a dilemma that Mr Kharge will need to solve, and quickly. He can galvanise the party in the two election-bound states to offset the absence of Rahul and hope to staunch the bleeding, or he can do little and play victim.
Mr Kharge’s greatest advantage, and he probably understands it better than most, is the resilience of the Congress in dealing with what would appear to most others as out-of-control chaos. How he manages morale will be crucial to how the Congress fares in the two state polls. There are other organisational challenges that await him as president, including resolving the Rajasthan leadership issue. Mr Ashok Gehlot will expect to be compensated for giving up the president’s position even though he wanted to retain his job as chief minister. Mr Sachin Pilot will expect some change in his status from being an understudy. The Congress, more than most parties, needs the president and collective leadership to work out a balance by reaching a complicated equilibrium. If Mr Kharge and the Gandhis can do this by reconstituting the Congress Working Committee and some key state party units, much will have been achieved to revive the party as a war machine ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.