After much last-minute deliberation, the two contenders for the post of the Congress president are Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor. On Friday morning, just hours before the deadline to file the nomination for the post of party president, Digvijaya Singh who was until now a front-runner in the race backed out. Singh subsequently supported Kharge, who is seen as the Gandhi-family backed choice. For Kharge to be president, he will have to quit the post of the Rajya Sabha leader of opposition, meaning that Singh might be in the running for the same.
But for now, all eyes are on Kharge and Tharoor, whose fate will be decided in the internal polls of the party set to take place in the coming week. The two come with a clear set of advantages and disadvantages, which will make the next few days a riveting spectacle as far as the Congress party is concerned.
Kharge — 11 Election Wins And Many Accolades, But One Big Downside
80-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge from Karnataka holds the record of a whopping eleven election victories— 9 times to the Karnataka Assembly from the Gurmitkal constituency from 1972 to 2008, and then to the Lok Sabha from Gulbarga in 2009 and 2014. The 2019 Lok Sabha polls were the first polls he had lost in over several decades, following which he was elected to the Rajya Sabha.
Kharge’s journey is often cited by Congress leaders as one of an ordinary man rising the party ladder, little by little. Until recently, when he was made the leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Kharge hadn’t had much of a role in the party’s national politics. But his credibility lies in asserting himself as a pavement-thumping politician who is in sync with ground realities. As a Dalit politician, who came from humble background, elevating Kharge to the post of Congress president will help the party prove an important symbolic point about inclusivity and assertion of marginalised communities.
He had served as the leader of opposition in the Karnataka Assembly from 1996-1999, and as the president of Karnataka Congress from 2005-2008. Kharge has also held two ministerial portfolios in the second UPA government — first as the labour minister and then as the railways minister.
But perhaps the biggest reason why Kharge has been rewarded by the Gandhis is his unflinching loyalty towards the family and the party.
“In all these decades, he has never strayed away from the party line, even momentarily,” a Congress leader told The Quint.
At a time when the party has seen umpteen flip-flops by some of its most senior leaders—most recently Ghulam Nabi Azad and Amarinder Singh who quit the party—to have a veteran leader like Kharge on their side is important.
In February 2021, Kharge was chosen as the leader of the opposition (LoP) in the Rajya Sabha. This had come at a time when the then LoP Azad’s tenure was ending, and Kharge was decided as the LoP choice over both Azad as well as Anand Sharma, the then deputy LoP in the Rajya Sabha. This was significant because unlike Azad and Sharma, who have been vocal critics of the party high command at various points and are also part of the ‘G23’, Kharge’s loyalty couldn’t be trusted more. Earlier, in 2014, Kharge was chosen as the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha. At the time, many from within the Congress including Tharoor had questioned why Rahul Gandhi didn’t take the post.
Kharge has in been in the race to be the Karnataka CM twice — once in 1999 and then in 2004, but was asked to wait for his turn both times. While he never ended up becoming CM, the Congress presidency may be a way of rewarding him for decades of loyalty to the party.
Despite all his accolades, if there is one down-side to having Kharge as the Congress president, it’s the leader’s age. BJP leaders have already begun making snide remarks, with BJP IT cell chief Amit Malviya tweeting, “Mallikarjun Kharge at 80 is an inspiring choice for CP. He is young, energetic and just what the Congress needed to ensure its revival.”
Moreover, that Kharge has never spoken out of turn against the Gandhis isn’t necessarily something the family would want to boast of—the oft-levelled criticism against them is that favor ‘loyalists’ over others. His elevation to the party president’s post might also rekindle the ‘old guard’ vs ‘new guard’ debate in the Congress.
Tharoor— A Popular Face in the Media But Lacks Relatability And Gandhi Backing
At 66, Tharoor is seen as one of the most prominent faces of the Congress party at least in the media and on social media. His speech at Oxford Union about British colonialism and its continued repercussions in India, made in 2015, keeps going viral globally every few months and has gained over 9 million views to date. Tharoor is often lauded for his oratory skills and comprehensive vocabulary, to the point that the term ‘Tharoorian English’ is used on the internet to describe his flamboyant style of conversing.
But this also exemplifies what is his biggest drawback: an evident lack of relatability that the masses will feel with someone who may be perceived as being highfalutin. Tharoor was born in the United Kingdom and went to college in Delhi University’s St Stephen's College, followed by a Masters in the United States and an illustrious almost three-decade long career in the United Nations. When Tharoor finally resigned from the UN in 2007, he had just finished second in the race for the UN Secretary General, defeated by Ban Ki-moon.
“I do speak adequate Hindi, I have been giving sound bites in Hindi for the last few days...” Tharoor said in a TV interview to India Today, trying to fend off the criticism that he can’t appeal to the Hindi-speaking population of the country.
In the run up to filing his nomination papers for the post of Congress president, Tharoor had been trying to get the support of delegates from different parts of the country, and not just Kerala.
“Nomination papers I submitted reflect extraordinarily wide range of support extended voluntarily to me by party workers across India. We've submitted 5 forms with 50 signs,” Tharoor said after filing his nomination papers.
This is an attempt to show that he enjoys following and support in Hindi-speaking states as well.
Unlike most other senior Congress leaders who have been career-politicians, Tharoor entered politics at the age of 53, when he threw his hat in the ring for the Lok Sabha polls from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram, and had a resounding victory. He was then made the Minister of State for External Affairs, a coveted position for a first-time MP. Tharoor quickly grew popular, especially on social media, becoming one of the most-followed Indian politicians on Twitter before the BJP came to power in 2014. He was also made a spokesperson for the Congress party, a post he was notoriously removed from in 2014, when he made statements praising PM Modi. Tharoor retained his Thiruvananthapuram seat in the 2014 as well as 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Tharoor’s soft skills are also seen as his advantage, helping him cut across party lines to make his point. When the BJP-led-NDA came to power in 2014, he wrote extensively talking about his relationship with Hinduism in books like "Why I Am a Hindu” and argued against ceding the religious space to the BJP.
But the enormous popularity has also come at a cost of heightened scrutiny on his personal life, most notably, when his wife Sunanda Pushkar died under mysterious circumstances in 2010, leading to a series of charges against Tharoor. However in August 2021, Tharoor was cleared of all charges in the case by a Delhi court.
If Tharoor were to become the Congress president, every single move of his would be scrutinised and discussed even more. He has said that his decision to contest the elections is because of his desire and ambition to introduce new ideas in the party.
Kharge Versus Tharoor: Who Has The Edge?
What gives Kharge an easy and visible edge over Tharoor is that he is blessed by the Gandhis to run this election. It is widely understood that for any non-Gandhi to become Congress president, the backing of the family is indispensable. Digvijaya Singh has named himself as a proposer for Kharge, as have Pramod Tiwari, former Haryana CM Bhupinder Hooda and the former choice of the Gandhis for the post, Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot. This inevitably makes Kharge the consensus choice for the post of Congress president.
Kumari Selja, former Haryana Congress president, became among the first Congress leaders to make an appeal for Kharge to “be elected unanimously” by the party.
Unlike most other Congress leaders, Tharoor isn’t exactly part of any one group or clan, giving him a fairer persona. But this may not necessarily help him win. While he was part of the group of 23 leaders or the ‘G23’, who wrote to Sonia Gandhi demanding internal party polls in August 2020, he isn’t the G23-backed candidate either. Some of the members of that group, Manish Tewari, Anand Sharma, Prithviraj Chavan, met late Thursday to deliberate over which candidate to support as the representative of the G23. However, the group couldn’t reach a consensus.
Finally, many from the G23 have enlisted themselves as the proposers for Kharge, including Mukul Wasnik, Anand Sharma, and Akhilesh Prasad Singh, besides Hooda.
Tharoor has garnered public support from individual Congress leaders such as Karti Chidambaram and Salman Soz. Addressing the media after filing his nomination, Tharoor conceded that Kharge is one of the most veteran politicians in India and even called him the 'Bhishma Pitamah of the Congress'. Tharoor, on his part, has been asserting that what he brings to the table will be a fresh set of ideas and way of functioning. But whether that will swing enough party support his way is debatable.