Tough tests await newly elected Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, the party’s first non-Gandhi chief in more than 24 years, as challenges galore for the grand old party on the road to the 2024 general elections.
Kharge has many things favourable going for him as he assumed the party’s top spot after a high-octane election, defeating a worthy opponent in Shashi Tharoor. Kharge is known to be a unifier who takes everyone along.
However, the situation in which he takes over is a tough one for the Congress with the party’s chances in the upcoming Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections not looking very bright, infighting simmering in states such as Rajasthan and Karnataka, and hurdles in abundance for Opposition unity in the run up to 2024.
A Dalit from Karnataka, 80-year-old Kharge trounced his 66-year-old rival Tharoor in a historic election, the sixth in the party’s 137-year-old history. He will formally take over on October 26.
His elevation to the party’s top post comes when the Congress is in power in just two states on its own Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and faces a very aggressive incumbent BJP in election-bound Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat a few weeks from now.
This will be Kharge’s first challenge.
Later in 2023, the Congress president will face the onerous task of leading the party in nine assembly elections, including in his home state Karnataka.
Kharge’s election also comes at a time when the party is reeling under internal rumblings and high-profile exits after a series of electoral debacles that have reduced it to a shadow of its former formidable self.
He will have to fend off BJP’s allegations of being a front for the Gandhis and remote-controlled by them.
Kharge also faces the challenge of a generational divide in the party and has to maintain a balance between experience and the youth going forward.
Political commentator Rasheed Kidwai said there are several challenges before Kharge as he has to coordinate with Team Rahul Gandhi, which occupies key posts and positions in the All India Congress Committee (AICC), the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and in most states.
The next challenge is constituting the CWC, in which most of the G-23 protagonists who supported him hope to get accommodated, Kidwai told PTI.
Kharge also faces the immediate challenge of the Rajasthan political crisis as he needs to “tame a defiant Ashok Gehlot and get a role for Sachin Pilot”, said Kidwai, the author of several books, including ’24 Akbar Road: A Short History Of The People Behind The Fall And Rise Of The Congress’.
He also has to firm up a broad alliance for the 2024 general elections with TMC’s Mamata Banerjee, DMK’s MK Stalin, JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar, and TRS’ K Chandrashekar Rao among others, Kidwai said.
Echoing similar views, political commentator Sanjay Kumar said there are a lot of challenges for the party, and unfortunately, Kharge’s ability to lead would be tested on the parameter of electoral success of the Congress.
“Unfortunately, the Congress does not seem to be in a very good position when it comes to facing the BJP in states like Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, and next year’s assembly polls starting with Karnataka. The party does not seem to be in a favourable situation in these states,” Kumar told PTI.
A lot of criticism may start coming his way early on with critics arguing that the leadership change has not done much for the party, said Kumar, co-director of Lokniti, a research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
He said it remains to be seen if the “puppet” tag that many critics have labelled on Kharge sticks or not depending on whether he takes decisions independently or “rushes to 10 Janpath (Sonia Gandhi’s residence) and Rahul Gandhi” for advice.
Kumar also said infighting has been a challenge for the Congress and recent developments in Rajasthan proved that, and so if the Gandhi family has had a problem in dealing with it, Kharge will have more problems.
“I also visualise maybe a vertical split within the party between Gandhi family loyalists and those who start looking forward to Kharge as the party president taking independent decisions,” he said.
Manindra Nath Thakur, an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Political Studies, said Kharge and the Congress face three main challenges reconstituting support base in the Hindi heartland, a new socio-economic-political idea to which people can be attracted, and revamping the organisational structure.
“Earlier president had legitimacy, Kharge will have to gain that legitimacy. He is not the natural choice of everyone in the party and therefore, he has to work hard for that,” Thakur told PTI.
The road ahead is certainly tough for Kharge, but many in the party believe he is the right man for the job as he has a lot of experience, takes everyone along and understands the Congress’ organisational functioning inside out.
Whether he can successfully steer the party across the obstacles that await it on the road to 2024, only time will tell.