Last week, journalist Manoj C G asked Mallikarjun Kharge what sort of Congress President he hoped to be. Would he be like K Kamaraj? Or Dev Kant Barooah? The premise of the question (which Kharge declined to answer) was that there are two kinds of non-Gandhi Congress Presidents. Kamaraj was the embodiment of the pre-dynastic Congress; Barooah, party President during the Emergency and a celebrated poet in Assamese, was the arch-loyalist who said “India is Indira. Indira is India.”
Since 1978, the Gandhis have always held the presidency of the Congress, except for the seven years (1991-98) in which no member of the family was active in the party. Between 1885 and 1978, the presidency, with a handful of exceptions, changed annually. Sonia Gandhi’s tenure as Congress President is thus as long as the combined tenures of every previous Nehru-Gandhi. Kharge’s election represents a return to the 1969-78 model of a party defined by Gandhi leadership, but with a non-Gandhi President.
This doesn’t mean that we should automatically dismiss him as a remixed Dev Kant Barooah. Kharge’s life and career indicate a man who deserves to be taken seriously – and not underestimated. He is truly self-made, has experience of politics at literally every level (from organising mill workers in Kalaburagi to serving in state and Union cabinets); in the circumstances, he did a more than creditable job in his five years as leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha.
Perhaps his greatest asset is his versatility, his ease in a wide range of contexts and situations. While he is not, strictly speaking, a “mass leader”, few politicians in modern Karnataka can match his ability to reach across community lines. And few politicians in any state have his linguistic range: he is comfortable in at least four languages (Kannada, Hindi/Urdu, English, Marathi).
Both the Congress and BJP are now formally led by organisation men who are at best the third or fourth most powerful figure in their party. Under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the modern BJP has emulated the Congress’ “High Command” structure, in which formal decision-making bodies (the BJP Parliamentary Board or the Congress Working Committee) exist merely to rubber-stamp the will of one or two leaders. Now, the Congress High Command has emulated the BJP’s approach to party presidency.
For all Kharge’s admirable qualities, those who hope for Congress revival can take little comfort from the timing and manner of his election. For decades, Kharge was renowned across Karnataka for his personal record of never having lost an election; but in 2019, he was convincingly defeated in his own seat by the BJP. Events in Rajasthan demonstrated both the relative unattractiveness of the presidency (Ashok Gehlot was unwilling to give up his chief ministership for it) and Kharge’s own inability to enforce party discipline. The next few weeks will tell us whether as President, he can command more authority.
Viewed in combination, the Bharat Jodo Yatra and Kharge’s election tell us that no state matters as much to the short-term future of the Congress as Karnataka. With Gujarat all but conceded and Himachal neglected much as Uttarakhand was, Karnataka represents the party’s best or only chance of toppling a BJP state government before 2024. It is also by far their best chance of expansion, rather than mere defence, in the Lok Sabha elections of that year.
Two long-term trends in my home state favour the Congress. Its record of anti-incumbency is unsurpassed; no government has been re-elected after a full term since 1978. And the BJP has never won a majority in its own right. Given these trends, and given an internally divided and administratively unpopular BJP, led by a Chief Minister without a mass following, the Congress ought to start as a strong favourite. Along with Kerala, Karnataka may be the only large state where its organisation remains robust.
Yet Karnataka is also a state in which the BJP has won four Lok Sabha elections in a row, in part because, absent the carrot of power at the state level, the party machinery fails to unite behind its candidates who often find themselves undermined by envious local rivals. A similar dynamic – the competition between Chief Minister aspirants including but not limited to DK Shivakumar, Siddaramaiah, and MB Patil – is capable of coming between the Congress and victory. Mallikarjun Kharge may be based in Delhi, but the most important task before him lies in his own home state. On at least three occasions, Kharge was passed over for the chief ministership; each time, he accepted the decision uncomplainingly. It now falls to him to see that the next generation of Karnataka Congressmen follow his example.
Shashi Tharoor emerges from the election with an uncertain future in the Congress (although his remarks in concession indicated an openness to serving under Kharge) but with a good deal of credit. Unlike his colleagues in the now-cremated “G-23”, he has the courage of his convictions. Despite the knowledge of certain defeat, and the knowledge that standing against Kharge would likely damage his standing with the High Command, he believed that his message – that the Congress has no option but to change – had to be voiced, and he was willing to pay the cost. As for the rest of G-23, their failure to support him was consistent with the Congress’ courtier culture, in which leaders are more interested in undercutting each other than growing the party.
How Kharge and the High Command treat Tharoor – put another way, how they make use of him – will be one measure of their own commitment to party revival. In 2019, Tharoor, unlike Kharge, or Jyotiraditya Scindia, or Rahul Gandhi, successfully defended his Lok Sabha seat (KC Venugopal declined to defend his). With Kharge gone, he was the obvious choice to lead the Congress in parliament, but was passed over for Adhir Ranjan Choudhury – a contribution in kind by the Congress High Command to the BJP.
Tharoor has called for organisational change, but he has never personally criticised the Gandhis or violated party discipline. In every way that matters, he has remained loyal. He is if anything far more loyal to the Congress than most of those who are called loyalists – because he actually wants the party to succeed.
One theory holds that the High Command is suspicious or resentful of Tharoor’s large personal following, and sees him as someone more committed to his own cause than the party’s. Yet the size of that following, and the fact that his profile and reputation have grown through the worst eight years on every metric of political success in the party’s history, only show how much the Congress can learn from him. One lesson is the value of sustained, full-time, multi-platform public engagement (from books to Twitter to everything in between).
Another is ideological. Between 1947 and the 1980s, the Congress’ main ideological challengers were more often from the left than the right. Since the start of the Ayodhya agitation, the main challenge has been from Hindu nationalism. The Gandhis have chosen to respond by stressing their own Hinduness, by asserting that they are Hindu not Hindutva. Since the death of Rajiv Gandhi, however, the Congress has steadily ceded the terrain of nationalism to the BJP.
As a South Indian and a supporter of a more federal India, I am entirely in sympathy with Rahul Gandhi’s vision of a “Union of States”. Outside a handful of states, however, this rhetoric is terrible politics. It is also a remarkable betrayal of his own party, and for that matter family, traditions. When it comes to nationalism, today’s Congress sounds a lot more like CN Annadurai than Indira Gandhi. The minute a politician, say, Arvind Kejriwal, comes out as any kind of nationalist, Congress supporters immediately allocate him or her a seat on the BJP’s “B-team”.
Shashi Tharoor, the author of Why I am a Hindu, agrees with Rahul Gandhi on the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. But crucially, he also understands that the “National” in his party’s name means not “all-India” but representing the interests of the Indian nation. He knows that the BJP should not be allowed to own nationalism any more than Hindu dharma. His personal success since 2014 has, more than anything, been built on his promotion of anti-colonial nationalism: the original ideology of the Indian National Congress. His success shows how powerfully this form of nationalism can still resonate.
(Keshava Guha is a writer of literary and political journalism, and the author of ‘Accidental Magic’.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.