Mr Kharge as Congress president will play the same role that Manmohan Singh played as Prime Minister, writes Sanjaya Baru
Mallikarjun Kharge represents continuity, asserted Shashi Tharoor, whereas “I represent change”. In so saying, Mr Tharoor has pitted himself not just against Mr Kharge, but Rahul Gandhi as well. RG is supposed to be the agent and symbol of change. The party needs both the symbols of continuity and change as it seeks to relaunch itself.
Many in New Delhi’s political commentariat have mocked the Congress Party for what they see as a faux election. However, there is some method in this madness. It is perhaps fair to assume that the original plan to get Rajasthan’s chief minister Ashok Gehlot to take up party presidentship was partly also a surreptitious attempt to get him out of the state, to enable sending Sachin Pilot as his replacement. It backfired for a simple reason.
One of the basic lessons that students of Indian State power learn is that there are only three offices of the State that really matter in power terms -- PM, CM and DM. Prime Minister, chief minister and district magistrate, or collector. Each one of them enjoys constitutional authority for independent action that few other functionaries of the State do. So, why should a chief minister who has majority support in his state give up that power to take on an essentially ornamental party post?
Ornamental because no party president can act independently of those who matter within the power structure of the party. J.P. Nadda of the BJP should know that well. He is even more ornamental, taking instructions from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union home minister Amit Shah and the RSS bosses. That is the power structure that a BJP president has to deal with.
Ashok Gehlot, Digvijaya Singh, Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor know very well that in the Congress Party a successful tenure as party president would require constant consultations with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. So, the presidents of both the national parties have to work in tandem with the party’s real power centres. Most of the regional political parties are anyway run by the leader’s near and dear ones.
Therefore, the criticism that the Congress Party presidential elections are a sham is unfair and misses the point. The point is that the so-called “high command” has finally understood that political legitimacy within the party is a necessary condition for a leader to secure wider public support. Sonia Gandhi succeeded in her effort to foist herself on the party because the party organisation was under the control of Rajiv Gandhi loyalists, who helped her stage a coup against Sitaram Kesri. Her elevation was in sharp contrast to P.V. Narasimha Rao’s daring political decision to get himself elected as party president in 1992, defeating powerful rivals. Sonia Gandhi, however, failed to ensure dynastic succession and RG has had to find other ways to secure his control over the party organisation. The padayatra is aimed at just that.
The Digvijaya Singh interlude was stillborn. It was always well known that even within his own state, Madhya Pradesh, his support base is extremely narrow. His election would not have sent out any important political message. Shashi Tharoor's self-sponsored candidature, hailed by friends in the Lutyens’ Delhi media, was like his contesting for the post of United Nations Secretary-General.
The result was not to be in the actual outcome of the election. No one expected Mr Tharoor to win in the UNSG race, and no one expects him to win in the party election. But there is nothing wrong in entering a race and making a point or two.
Mr Kharge as Congress president will play the same role that Manmohan Singh played as Prime Minister. Keep the Nehru-Gandhi family in play. Both were smart political decisions, hitting many buttons. While many have pointed to Mr Kharge’s age, the fact is that it is his caste and regional identity that serve a temporary political purpose. No point pooh-poohing such considerations in politics. They matter. Mr Kharge is a Dalit from Karnataka, and elections are looming in that state. Interestingly, his candidature was announced the day RG’s padayatra entered Karnataka.
An election for the post of party president in 2022 is not about who will lead the party in the elections of 2024. Make no mistake, RG will. What RG needs in the run-up to the general election is an “organisation” man, much like Mr Modi’s J.P. Nadda, who will manage the dull and boring day-to-day organisational matters and can lend an ear to the party cadre across the country. Mr Tharoor is essentially a “non-organisation” man. Flamboyant, charming, articulate, media savvy, and so on. All the characteristics that RG should have as the party’s mascot. What the party internally needs is Mr Kharge’s patient ear more than Mr Tharoor’s smart mouth.
Once the Bharat Jodo Yatra is done, the Congress leadership has to come to terms with the ground reality of its diminished political presence across the country. Gaining more seats at the expense of the Left Front in Kerala is not smart politics. The Left and the Congress are now joined at the hip. What the Congress needs is to gain at the expense of the BJP and allow other non-BJP parties that are explicitly hostile to the BJP and are unlikely to switch sides to retain their space.
The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah BJP is still well ahead of its rivals, but the ground beneath its feet is shifting. Consider how much time and effort Prime Minister Modi is devoting to his pocket borough, Gujarat. He is taking no chances. Which means that chances exist for others. The Hindi-speaking states are wavering. Bihar has already slipped away. The BJP will still be the single largest party in Parliament in 2024, and may well retain a simple majority, but the prospects for the non-BJP parties are not entirely hopeless. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible.
Pushed to the wall by the BJP, the non-BJP parties have demonstrated the capacity to fight back. Mamata Banerjee did so in West Bengal and K. Chandrashekhar Rao is doing so in Telangana. The Congress Party too has to demonstrate to its own cadres its capacity, willingness and imagination to fight back. The padayatra and the organisational elections may serve this internal purpose. If they do, the party would have the energy required, if not the funds, to take on the far bigger challenge of defeating the BJP.