The election for the post of Congress president has had a surreal effect. If you only followed India’s English social media or print and TV news, you would be left with the distinct impression that Shashi Tharoor was both messiah and martyr of his own party.
To be sure, Tharoor styled himself as a reformer and professional politician akin to his western counterparts. This did not come across as cosplay but was true to his celebrity forged on the back of books, speaker fixtures, an international career and as a workaday successful constituency MP. And for a certain kind of Indian, this is IT! How come with that trajectory Tharoor could be denied the top party job?
Pitched as he was against the now clear winner and a man five years older than independent India at 80, Mallikarjun Kharge by contrast has cut his political teeth in labour movements, forging several provincial election victories, and above all is a Dalit, who has overcome steep historic barriers to emerge on top. Kharge is also a consummate party man adept at manoeuvring Congress factions and structures. His life also proves the cliché wrong that all political careers end only in failure.
Personality aside, the contest has in effect represented the diversity of India. That both men are from the south of the Vindhyas indicates that the Congress fightback will upturn the northern fixation of national electoral politics. The contest also underscored that no two social groups are the same and it is the contest between social groups that has made Indian democracy the most competitive in the world. Language as class and the power of caste, to my mind, have defined the differences between Tharoor and Kharge while the figure of Rahul Gandhi loomed large over the contest.
Kharge was voted in strongly but the English mediascape has been awash with conspiracy, name calling and intrigue with attempts to even malign the election process that, by most accounts, seems to have been pioneering for Indian politics.
From the days of its earliest foundations, the Congress has attracted India’s English-speaking elite and until M.K. Gandhi, English was the membership ticket to the party. As the language of power, a century later, English now no longer commands rule. Yet, and precisely because Indian English media houses are wilfully caste-blind — arguably to protect their caste privilege — Tharoor as their favoured candidate was projected with powers to swing the floater voter and represent the aspirational. Kharge was dismissed as not just old but not even the holder of his own views. In a hypocritical blind spot, many of the same outlets had loudly discussed the role of race in Rishi Sunak’s recent failure to get Britain’s top job. Irony has long been dead but this total and brazen lack of self-reflection only denudes the power of political commentary. So much for analysis as caricature.
To the extent that the media can influence the drift and direction of political narratives and fortunes, Kharge’s victory has served to reconfirm bias. Tharoor’s greatest asset is indeed his media savviness and to his credit, he aces that.
Crucially and since the rise of Narendra Modi, it is entirely unclear whether traditional opinion-making machinery of the Fourth Estate holds any significant power. It is fair to say that in choosing Kharge, which also effectively gives English media the short shrift, the Congress party is only playing catch up with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Sadly, since I do enjoy the press (and even write for it), it looks like the press was the bigger loser once again. As it stands, the English press will continue having to contend with little to no access to the ruling party while now gaining the disdain of the grand old party as well and diminishing its own credibility and power in the process. This cannot be good news for India’s multi-party democracy let alone its English media.
In Kharge’s victory, the Congress instead seeks to project the power of caste. In a highly competitive electoral context, the BJP has leveraged and instrumentalised the caste matrix to its own advantage. Though Charanjit Singh Channi as the Dalit face of the Punjab campaign did not win votes for the Congress, the party seems to be manoeuvring itself towards this significant, historically oppressed and currently under-represented social group. It certainly offers an alternative optic from both the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s wilful neglect of caste and the BJP’s assertive identity politics. If, however, this remains only at the level of symbolic tokenism, then this would be a lost opportunity for the Congress.
Undeniably, the resetting of a new politics of caste, in the age of high Hindu nationalism, offers a new political opening. As the basic structure of Indian society, caste has long been the prison house of Indian democracy. Now, it deserves and demands a new imagination and politics beyond the symbolic and instrumental counting of caste heads for electoral equations. In short, a new caste politics cannot now just mimic the toxic mix of cynicism and fake socialism that defined Mandal politics of an earlier era. That would be neither effective nor inspiring!
Finally, the new president is a return to history. In turning to Kharge amid its mass contact programme of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Congress has returned to an older division of political labour. Historically, political leadership and party presidency have been distinct. This has been since the age of Gandhi through to Nehru and even in the more recent UPA era when party and government were helmed by two different figures, whether in friction or in harmony. Though she has cast a strong shadow, Indira Gandhi was an aberration in that long history, holding as she did the party and political leadership while also being head of government. Dynastic political power deserves its own column, but suffice to say that it is blindingly obvious that Rahul Gandhi is charting a path that diverges from the Congress’ erstwhile matriarchs.
In holding a party presidential election at the same time as its mass contact programme, the Congress party seems to have come out of its long complacent chapter. Since at least 2012, the party has been stymied not only by stunning defeats but, crucially, also by the loss of political language. For now, it is increasingly clear the Congress is seeking its political future by reorienting the region and society to undermine the hegemony of Hindu nationalism. Its calls for unity and harmony counter the dominant political sentiments of hostile anger of our age. In this moment, the Congress may have found its utterance, however faltering but anew, and even an initial confidence in its party structures. It is the right step and in the right direction but the path to political power still needs to be lit by a grand and captivating vision.
Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal
(Edited by Prashant)