Kharge, the change agent?

This was already written in stone once the ageing veteran, a thoroughgoing Gandhi loyalist, was exhumed for a moribund political career and commandeered to fight an election.
Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor
Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor

It is no surprise that Mallikarjun Kharge trounced Shashi Tharoor in the election to the Congress presidency. This was already written in stone once the ageing veteran, a thoroughgoing Gandhi loyalist, was exhumed for a moribund political career and commandeered to fight an election. His challenger, much younger at 66, positioned himself as a representative of change, opposed to the status quo and pushing for real democratic reform. But the results have clearly established one thing – the Congress’s distrust of anyone other than the Gandhis or one of their nominees to lead the party.

Having said this, it is an achievement of sorts for the party to have an election to this post, which has taken place after more than two decades. The contest may not portend great change, but it could set a precedent and become a basis for further reform. All eyes will now be on Kharge. Will he simply be the Gandhis’ marionette? Will he be able to persuade them that this election should be the starting point for real contests to all other posts in the party, right down to the grassroot level? Could his ascension become, even if only in a half-hearted and halting manner, a catalyst for some other changes?

The next few months will sort this out as the memory of this flawed election fades. The Gandhis may not have made a public pronouncement, but they made their preference clear. There were allegations of irregularities in some states such as Uttar Pradesh, and there were deep-seated fears that the ballot may not truly be secret in others. That Shashi Tharoor polled over 1,000 votes despite all of this was laudable. His was always a losing cause, but in intangible but important ways, his candidature has contributed to the idea that change, however distant, is possible.

Kharge’s immediate attention will be on the states going to the polls. Here, it will be important to see how he handles Ashok Gehlot, who refused to contest the election after realising that this will mean his political marginalisation in Rajasthan. Will Gehlot’s political revolt be punished, now that a full-fledged Congress president is in place? What does the Congress plan to do in Gujarat, in the face of a new challenge from AAP? Kharge has assumed charge of a party in a deep decline, and it would require superhuman strength to quickly turn it around. But success is built on small and sustainable measures. And Kharge would do well to remember that holding elections at every level – from Parliamentary Board, Congress Working Committee, to PCCs, block and district committees – is the way forward. There can be no change without democratic reform. The Gandhis have failed to recognise it. Does Kharge?

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