Tharoor represents change but the old guard controls Congress

Kharge as the likely winner and the next Congress president will ensure that the party is run by the family while they can point out that a contest was indeed held

By Simran Sodhi

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Published: Sun 9 Oct 2022, 7:35 PM

The recent spotlight on the Congress party and the upcoming elections for the post of the party president is a welcome detour for political observers in India. For quite some time now the interest in the Congress had waned as the party performed miserably in election after election and predictions indicated that nothing better could be expected.

The news that after more than 20 years a non-Gandhi was likely to head the party and that a contest was likely between other members made many sit up and look at the Congress again. The choice is now down to two candidates, Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor. The two are like chalk and cheese, different politicians with different aspirations and different agendas.

Kharge is solid and reliable - for the Congress family. His Dalit credentials are an added electoral advantage, both within the party and electorally. At 80 he will have a short stint at the top party post, which suits most Congress insiders. He is not expected to spring any surprises and it is understood that he has the backing of the Gandhi family for the upcoming contest. So far most Congress leaders have expressed their support for him over Tharoor. Which then leads us to the next question, what's in it for Tharoor if a defeat is imminent?

Tharoor, if we look at his history quickly, has always gained by contesting big and losing. Recall the elections to the United Nations secretary-general post in 2006 against Ban ki Moon? Tharoor never had a chance even then as the United States was firmly behind Ban. But that loss helped Tharoor make a mark in Congress. He has since won three consecutive Lok Sabha elections and was even made a junior minister when the Congress was in power with its allies in 2009.

Tharoor is a popular figure with the Indian middle class; they love his English and his accent. His stint at the UN and his writings make him a living room favourite. But that has never translated into him becoming a mass leader. Even the G23 (group of 23 Congress members, who after the debacle in the 2019 polls demanded an organizational rejig in the party) have allied with Kharge. Indications are that many in Congress would rather avoid a contest on October 17 and are keen that Tharoor withdraws from the race. So far, he seems to be in no mood to give up, and his #ThinkTomorrowThinkTharoor push continues.

The Kerala leader has said that if the party wants to maintain the status quo they should vote for Kharge and if they are looking for a change, then he’s their man. Well, it seems a bit naïve to even suggest that the Grand Old Party is looking for a change. Elections are welcome as long as their man wins and a friendly contest never hurts anyone. Hence, Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka seem rather content to sit on the sidelines and see this contest happen. Kharge as the likely winner and the next Congress president will ensure that the party is run by the family while they can point out that a contest was indeed held. Tharoor also knows that by giving the Gandhi family a spectacle of an election drama, he also ensures his own place in the family and party, but in a more subtle fashion.

In all likelihood, a contest between Kharge and Tharoor will take place on October 17 and the winner declared on October 19. Again in all likelihood, Kharge will emerge as the winner and the Congress party will return to its old habits. Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (a march across the length of the country to unite the nation) and Sonia’s control of the party and its affairs will ensure that after the hoopla ends, one can sigh and say nothing really changed. But the tragedy here is that this was a chance, a slim one, for the party to reclaim its soul. A real election, a real contest and a shake-up of the Congress would have re-vitalised not just the party but changed the political dynamics of the country. Then, old habits die hard, and in this case, they don’t die at all.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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