Elections in two states within this year, challenges to the two remaining Congress governments next year, and then the 2024 fight to stop another Modi sweep — Mallikarjun Kharge got more than just a certificate from the party as he formally became Congress president today. And the 80-year-old was quick to announce a youthful way forward.
“We decided at the Udaipur ‘Chintan Shivir’ to reserve 50 per cent of the party posts for those below 50 years of age. We will move forward with that, with support from all of you,” he declared after taking over, speaking in Hindi.
“We will defeat those who spread hatred,” he said, naming the ruling BJP and its parent body RSS as “those who want to divide India”.
The Karnataka veteran, who defeated Shashi Tharoor, 66, in a rather eventful election only last week, replaced Sonia Gandhi, 75, and cited her politics as worth following. “It was in January 1998, in Bengaluru, when Sonia ji at her first public rally said she’s taking her first political lessons from Karnataka. Her politics has been that of sacrifice — above self-interest and quest for power alone.”
“Now our country is seeing politics of lies and deceit. Attempts are being made today to change the democratic system established by the Congress. But Congress’s ideology is based on India’s Constitution, and it’s time to save it,” he said.
Mallikarjun Kharge is the first Congress chief from outside the Gandhi family in 24 years, while Rahul Gandhi, who was at the function, remains the face of the party — a reason why Mr Kharge faces the “rubberstamp” charge.
“I have risen from being just a local Congress worker. I thank all of you for making me, the son of a labourer, the president,” Mr Kharge said, adding, “Congress is the only party that has internal democracy, and my election proves that.”
‘What Rahul ji is doing…’
On Rahul Gandhi, he said the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ that he’s leading, from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, is a historic move to take the party’s message to the grassroots. “The Congress has done a lot of good things,” he stressed, mentioning the Food Security Act, the MNREGA job guarantee scheme and Right to Education. “The people are not happy with us despite that.”
“Rahul ji is speaking to people directly. He is gathering people who may not be with us formally, but want an India that’s not divided. It’s my duty to take that agenda forward,” he further said, listing jobs, economic recovery and communal harmony among the party’s priorities.
Mr Kharge has billed “consensus and consultation” as his leadership strategy. He met with former prime minister Manmohan Singh at his home yesterday. This morning, he paid homage to Mahatma Gandhi at his memorial, Rajghat.
He also visited memorials of former PMs Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, besides former deputy PM Jagjivan Ram, who was the first Dalit chief of the Congress; Mr Kharge is the second.
In just over two weeks, the Congress will hope the voters of Himachal Pradesh continue with their pendulum pattern to bring it back to power after five years of BJP rule. The hill state votes on November 12.
Another election in the same timeframe — exact dates awaited — is in Gujarat, PM Narendra Modi’s home state, where the Congress has been running an admittedly lowkey campaign as its hopes of unseating the BJP aren’t visibly high.
Mr Kharge said booth-level workers hold the key to victories.
In 2023, a bigger test awaits Mr Kharge. The year will see nine assembly elections, including in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the only two states where the Congress has chief ministers.
The year will also see the culmination of Rahul Gandhi’s five-month ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, the march that the party hopes will help it stop the BJP from another sweep, in the 2024 general elections.
Mr Kharge is known for not losing an election barring the 2019 Lok Sabha contest since he entered the fray in 1969. After the 2019 loss, Sonia Gandhi brought Mr Kharge to the Rajya Sabha and in February 2021 made him the leader of the opposition. He has served as leader of Congress in Lok Sabha, besides having been a key player in Karnataka since the 1970s
Same old, or new?
The last non-Gandhi Congress president was Sitaram Kesri, who was removed in 1998 just after two years into his five-year term when Sonia Gandhi finally acceded to coming to the fore.
Outside of the immediate election scene, Mr Kharge also faces the challenge of restoring the party’s primacy in the opposition space as regional parties find it unworthy to concede space to a diminished Congress.
Within the party, he may implement reforms pledged at the Congress ‘Chintan Shivir’ in Udaipur if he wants to be seen as the face of something new. All this comes in the face of insinuations that not much would change as he is a nominee of the Gandhis.
Sonia Gandhi said at the handover function, “I did my duty to the best of my ability. Today, I will be freed of this responsibility. A weight is off my shoulder. I feel a sense of relief.”