With Mallikarjun Kharge taking over as the new president of the Congress party on Wednesday, 26 October, the question now arises on what major changes, if any, he will implement.
The 80-year-old leader was seen and understood as the unspoken ‘official’ candidate in these presidential polls, enjoying the backing of the Gandhi family. So, while the result is on expected lines, it is undeniable that Kharge brings a wealth of experience to the table — of electoral as well as organisational politics.
Tharoor, during his campaign, had stressed upon the ‘new’ and ‘transformational’ nature of his potential presidency, but Kharge didn’t make any such promises. Unlike Tharoor, the veteran leader didn’t release any manifesto either. Speaking to the media hours after his election victory, Kharge said he is looking forward to taking charge as the president, but will discuss his detailed plan on 26 October, when he officially takes over as president. Here are some reforms that we can expect from Kharge in the months ahead.
A Fewer State Working Presidents, Younger Faces in Kharge’s Team, Induction in SC and OBC Unit of Party
The one thing that Kharge kept reiterating throughout his campaign interviews, was that the Congress’ Udaipur declaration will be implemented if he were to become president. Sources close to the leader say that there are likely to be organisational changes in line with this very soon. These include one man-one post, increased leadership roles to those under 50 years of age, and one family-one ticket, among other promises.
But sources said that the first of these promises that Kharge is likely to tick off is that of bringing younger faces into more prominent leadership roles.
Interestingly, the leader might start by revamping his own team—bringing in more young faces, including party workers associated with the Youth Congress. This will also serve to tackle the criticism coming his way of being too aged and representing the party 'old guard' to actually make any meaningful reforms.
It also needs to be seen if Kharge would accommodate his main rival in the presidential elections - Shashi Tharoor - in a key position.
The top office-bearers, however, are likely to remain the same as they were Sonia Gandhi’s choices and it is unlikely that there will be any radical changes on those positions, another source said. It would be interesting to see if KC Venugopal, considered close to Rahul Gandhi, continues in the crucial position of General Secretary (Organisation).
The party only recently saw an organisational revamp of sorts, as part of which Jairam Ramesh was made the general secretary (communications) in place of Randeep Surjewala, who was asked to stick to the one post of in charge of Karnataka Congress.
However, one important change that Kharge is likely to implement is that of fewer working presidents and in some states, none.
The phenomenon of having multiple working presidents across states has been criticised by many Congress leaders including the ‘G23’, as it needlessly complicates the decision-making process and results in ego-clashes. “But these changes will be rolled out at a slow but steady pace, in order to make the transition smoother,” a leader close to Kharge said.
Moreover, Kharge is unlikely to make much of the demands raised by the 'G23'. That presidential elections be held in Congress were one of the major demands of the group, and that has been implemented. Besides that, it is unlikely that there will be more suggestions from the group implemented.
Under Kharge, the party’s Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Classes (OBC) departments are also likely to see more inductions in order to strengthen the party’s outreach in those communities. Kharge’s Dalit background is an important factor that would add to this outreach.
Kharge To Make Active Efforts For Opposition Unity
One of Rahul Gandhi’s pet projects for almost two years has been trying to weave some sort of an understanding between various opposition parties. As part of this, he had met 14 opposition party leaders in August 2021 over an elaborate breakfast organised at Delhi's Constitution Club.
Sources said that Kharge’s vast body of experience in understanding ground politics will be tapped into to ensure that these attempts at consolidating some sort of an opposition unity reaches its logical end. “Earlier he (Kharge) would try and build consensus in the Karnataka assembly, or locally during the state’s elections. But now he will be reaching out to national parties in the capacity of the Congress president,” a senior leader of the Congress said.
Kharge’s veteran stature will help ease the process of reaching out to, and building meaningful relationships with the heads of other opposition parties. However, this will be an uphill task, given the fact that most opposition parties including the TMC, the NCP and the Shiv Sena wouldn’t be so welcoming to have the Congress occupy the central role in this supposed united opposition. How Kharge will maneuver through these challenges is yet to be seen.
Digvijaya Singh Top Runner To Replace Kharge, Chidambaram Name Also Surfaces
The other change, expected to happen soon, is that another leader will have to replace Kharge as the Leader of Opposition (LOP) in the Rajya Sabha.
Hours after Kharge filed his nomination papers for the post of party president on 1 October, he had sent in his resignation papers in accordance with the ‘one man-one post’ rule. However now the question arises over who will be the leader to replace him in that all-important role. Sources said that Kharge has requested Sonia Gandhi to take that call, but that two names have come up during deliberations—Digvijaya Singh and P. Chidambaram.
Singh had originally decided to contest for the post of party president, but later backtracked when Kharge threw his hat in the ring. Chidambaram is also a senior party leader, having served in top ministerial positions in the past during UPA. “But since the new president (Kharge) is from the South and Chidamabram is also from the South, it is likely that Singh will be made the LoP, in order to have representations from both North and South,” the source added.