Mallikarjun Kharge: Congress’ new president Mallikarjun Kharge’s test begins now

Mallikarjun Kharge’s trial would begin along with his stint as Congress president under the shadow of Sonia Gandhi and her children. Given the Congress establishment’s cultivated working style and instincts of the Congress brass, he will have to tread carefully the ‘Gandhi path’, which links 24 Akbar Road to 10 Janpath-12 Tughlak Lane axis of family power and its beneficiaries.

Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s visit to Kharge’s residence, soon after his election on Wednesday, showcased the family’s backing for him and advertised the ‘new protocol’. Rahul Gandhi’s congratulatory phone call to Kharge and reported desire to work as a ‘Congress sepoy’ too conveyed the same message. However, proof of the pudding is in the eating and in Kharge’s case, the functional autonomy his presidency would get.

Kharge is a contingency president because none from the Gandhis-Vadra trio was ready to head the party. His frantically firmed up candidature, after Ashok Gehlot’s pullout, makes him the ‘substitute’ who scored the goal. His luck notwithstanding, Kharge has to deal with the trio, at a peculiar and difficult phase. The Gandhis haven’t quit the leadership contented or on a winning note. Barring Sonia Gandhi’s UPA phase of power, the turmoil in Congress since 2014 have raised questions on the brand value of the family. After Sonia Gandhi’s presidentship saw Congress tally dip to its lowest of 114 Lok Sabha seats in 1999, it took the prop of over a dozen allies for the party to win 145 LS seats in 2004 – marginally more than tallies when Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri, respectively, were presidents – to bring back Congress to power, although the party added 61 seats in 2009 after a 5-year UPA spell in power. Since then, the Sonia-Rahul leadership delivered the lowest Congress LS tally of 44 in 2014 and Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka together took the party to the second worst tally of 53 in 2019. Besides, Congress has been reduced to controlling just two state governments.

The Gandhis, hence, would be under pressure to salvage their career. With the Gandhi siblings only in their early 50s, they would want to control the levers of Congress. For this reason, several leaders feel the ‘first family’ has tactically stepped aside for Kharge ahead of the third encounter with Narendra Modi in 2024.

Though Rahul on Wednesday said Kharge would decide his role, he has already chosen to remain Congress’ de facto leader with the Bharat Jodo Yatra amid the presidential election. On her part, Vadra, though the general secretary for UP, will lead the Congress campaign in Himachal Pradesh. Only their mother has stepped down as interim president. The band of top Congress leaders would, hence, continue to show deference to the ‘first family’ under the Kharge presidency, the way they did during Manmohan Singh’s tenure as PM. It would be interesting to see if all three Gandhis would be in the CWC.

Kharge may physically keep the office of the Congress president, which remained mostly locked during the Sonia-Rahul stints, open. But will he get the real freedom to pick his organisational team, including the CWC – and to decide whether to hold elections to 12 CWC berths – AICC secretariat and PCC chiefs? Equally, can he ward off any attempt to saddle him with AICC working/vice presidents or a political secretary who would report to someone else? Similarly, will he get to head the Congress parliamentary party or will another amendment be made to have Sonia continue, or for Rahul to take over post? Kharge’s occupational hazards will be known soon. While he has no opportunity anymore to consult Rao or Kesri on the trials non-Gandhi Congress presidents faced, he could somewhat make up by learning from Manmohan Singh’s tenure as PM.

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