With the Gandhis' blessing, Mallikarjun Kharge will almost certainly win the election for Congress President. Why is this choice being trashed?
First, Ashok Gehlot, the ideal candidate as far as the Gandhis were concerned, had to be ejected from the election on account of his full-blown revolt in Jaipur. On Thursday, Digvijaya Singh emerged as a contender. But by Friday, it was Mallikarjun Kharge who replaced him centrestage and now there will be a contest between Shashi Tharoor and him.
Mallikarjun Kharge was chosen by the party "High Command" for these five reasons:
1. At the moment, the party needs a unifier. Mallikarjun Kharge, age 80, has the stature and the seniority to talk to Congress leaders of any age. Rahul Gandhi does not enjoy the confidence of many veteran party leaders. Most senior leaders who left the Congress, as also those who formed the G23, have very little trust in his leadership. When he resigned after the 2019 election, he wrote that he was fighting all alone. The Congress at the moment needs an old war horse.
2. Mallikarjun Kharge is non-controversial. He is not like Digvijaya Singh who is always in the news for the wrong reasons. Digvijaya Singh would have been a disaster as President. He is accused of undeniable appeasement of Muslims. Be it the Batla House episode or his "respectful" statement about Osama Bin Laden or him referring to a woman activist of his own party in a derogatory manner, he has created unnecessary controversies which hurt the Congress. Even before he filed his nomination, BJP leaders had started reminding people about his past. Mallikarjun Kharge does not have such a past.
3. Mallikarjun Kharge, a Dalit leader from Karnataka, is a trusted lieutenant of the Gandhis. In his long political career, he has always followed their diktats. In the past, he could have asked to be Chief Minister of Karnataka after the Congress won the state, but did not do so. After the Ashok Gehlot fiasco, it was imperative for the family to choose someone they can trust blindly.
4. For the Congress to do well in the 2024 election, it should do well in South India. Mallikarjun Kharge comes from Karnataka which votes next year. The BJP government led by Basavaraj Bommai is in a mess. His own party is not confident about his leadership and that leaves the Congress with an excellent opportunity to snatch the state from the BJP. Mallikarjun Kharge's election as the President can boost the Congress' chances in Karnataka.
5. Mallikarjun Kharge's biggest USP is his surname. He belongs to the Dalit Community. He is a respected figure not only in his home state but also nationally. The Congress was once the darling of the Dalit community. Along with Brahmins and minorities, the Dalits were part of a formidable social coalition that gave the Congress staying power. The Congress lost its social base, especially in north India, with the rise of the Mandal politics and the Mandir movement in 1990. The Brahmins, along with other upper castes, shifted towards the BJP ,and the Dalits aligned significantly with the BSP in UP and marginally in other Hindi-speaking states. UP has 80 Lok Sabha seats. The erosion of Brahmin and Dalit votes in UP is one of the reasons for the pathetic performance of the Congress in UP. In the last assembly elections in UP, despite Priyanka Gandhi leading its effort, the party got 3% votes.
Mallikarjun Kharge's election could be a baby step in reviving the confidence of Dalits in the Congress. It's like Droupadi Murmu's appointment for the post of President. In a democracy which is mostly defined by identity politics, Mallikarjun Kharge's election could be a big deal.
One could argue that a similar logic was put forth when Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit leader, was made the Chief Minister of Punjab. But the Congress lost Punjab not because it chose Channi but because it did not remove Navjot Singh Sidhu, who was determined not to let Channi win. He was seeking revenge for not being made Chief Minister himself. But Kharge is not Channi. He is more astute a politician, and there is no Siddhu at the national level in the Congress.
Many people are saying that Kharge will prove to be a rubber stamp and the real power will reside with Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. The Gandhi family is the core of the Congress, whether one likes it or not. Just like the BJP cannot survive without the RSS, the Congress needs the Gandhi family.
(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.