Congress Party elected non-Gandhi Dalit Mallikarjun Kharge as president

Kharge defeated prominent author and MP Shashi Tharoor in the intra-party elections with overwhelming majority

Mallikarjun Kharge elected president of India’s Congress party on Wednesday. Kharge has defeated veteran congress leader and author Shashi Tharoor. Kharge won more 80% votes of delegates.

The former minister Kharge has become the first non-Gandhi president of Congress in last 24 years. Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi lead the party in last 24 years. It was the sixth time in the Congress party's nearly 137-year-old history that an electoral contest decided who would take up the mantle of party president.

Kharge faced off against Shashi Tharoor, 66, a former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, who campaigned for “change” in the party. Tharoor conceded defeat on Twitter and said that being Congress president was a “great honour & a huge responsibility”, wishing Kharge “all success in the task”.

 The million dollar question is whether the Kharge will be able to reverse the political decline into political oblivion. The 137 years old party is facing serious political and organisational crisis.    Mallikarjun Kharge, 80, was elected by members to replace Sonia Gandhi as president of the once-mighty party that helped win India’s independence from Britain 75 year’s ago.

The Congress was last in power nationally from 2004 to 2014 under Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. The BJP thrashed Congress in the last two elections. After the latest defeat in 2019, Rahul Gandhi resigned as party president and handed the reins back to his Italian-born mother Sonia, now 75, who was first appointed to the role in 1998.

Kharge, a former railways and labour minister who is from the low-caste Dalit community, was born five years before independence and is widely believed to have the backing of both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. But despite stepping back, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi is expected to continue pulling the strings from behind the scenes.

The Congress hopes to revive its flagging fortunes with a new leader after losing two general elections and control of some state assemblies to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"The most important issues facing the country right now are inflation, unemployment, a widening divide between the rich and poor and a growing environment of hatred spread by the ruling government," Kharge told reporters after winning the presidency of Congress.

Despite the change at the top of the Congress, the BJP, which advocates a hard-right, nationalist stance, appears to be in a strong position to win a third successive term in a general election due by 2024.

The 137-year-old Congress, which helped win India's independence from colonial power Britain and then dominated politics for decades, has long championed a secular polity. Rajiv Gandhi, who followed his mother Indira Gandhi and grandfather Jawaharlal ruled India for all but around four of its first 40 years of independence. Congress has ruled India nearly 50 years in its 75 years history.  

Kharge will take over from Sonia Gandhi, who has served as interim president since her son, Rahul Gandhi, stepped down from the post following the party's debacle in the 2019 general elections. Kharge took over the party at the time when it becomes the shadow of its past glory. It has lost one state election after another since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist BJP swept to power in 2014. Congress is currently in power in just two of the India's 36 states and federally controlled territories.

It has been beset by high-profile exits and defections, as well as intense intra-party rivalry among various political factions. The challenge for Kharge now will be to unite and reenergize the party, as well as come up with a vision that he can present to voters as a credible alternative to that offered by the BJP.

Some party insiders say it will become clear within a few months if the experiment of installing a non-Gandhi president is working and whether Kharge is able to implement much-needed organizational reforms. 

The upcoming legislative elections in the states of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat are among the first challenges that Kharge will face. In both states, Congress will take on the BJP but also have to contend with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is emerging as a serious player.

While Kharge has the stature and political experience to play a key role in reaching out to leaders of other opposition parties, he also has to come up with a blueprint for the 2024 general elections to ensure that his party is at the center of any anti-BJP alliance that might take shape.

                                                                           Khalid Bhatti

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