It was disingenuous of Rahul Gandhi to say that he will report to the new Congress president who will decide his role in the future setup.
This is a party his grandmother Indira Gandhi created as a family concern after she was expelled post-defeat in the 1977 general election. She even named it Congress (Indira) as if to assert ownership.
She reclaimed the name Indian National Congress only in 1980 when the Election Commission recognised her outfit as the ``real’’ Congress after her thumping poll victory.
Consequently, there is no doubt in the minds of most Congressmen and women that the Gandhi family was, is and will always be the pole around which the party revolves. Rahul Gandhi can pick and choose any role he wants and the president will acquiesce gladly.
First ‘Non-Gandhi’ Congress President
All eyes are now trained on Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka for cues to gauge the emerging new dynamics as Karnataka veteran Mallikarjun Kharge gets ready to take over as the first non-Gandhi Congress president in 24 years after trouncing Shashi Tharoor in a much-hyped election—another first in 22 years.
If the family so chooses, the moment represents an opportunity to revamp and rejuvenate the party while simultaneously refurbishing Rahul’s image to erase the 'Pappu' tag the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) has pasted on him. It’s a long haul and needs hard work and imaginative thinking.
Most importantly, the Gandhis will have to step back a bit and work closely with Kharge while empowering him to usher in changes. Otherwise, they will only reinforce the BJP taunt that the new president is a mere puppet in the hands of the privileged dynast Rahul Gandhi.
The challenges ahead are huge, both for Kharge and the Gandhis. At first glance, Kharge represents the status quo. At 80, he is in the winter of his life. He’s steeped in the ways of the old Congress. And he is a devout Gandhi family loyalist. Therefore the question that’s being asked: Is he the man the Congress needs to pull it out of the black hole into which it has sunk since Modi’s BJP swept to power in 2014?
How Kharge Had an Edge Over Tharoor
In contrast, his opponent, Tharoor, seemed to be the breath of fresh air, a fossilised party like the Congress so desperately needs. He is younger, highly articulate in both English and Hindi and unlike Kharge, campaigned strongly for change.
Yet he lost, largely because he is seen as an outsider, a possible threat to the establishment and ill-equipped to evolve a consensus or strike a balance between the multiple warring factions that have been the bane of the Congress.
Whereas, Kharge is a non-controversial low-key figure. He’s humble and soft-spoken and is expected to soothe complaints about an inaccessible leadership by being available in the Congress headquarters on a daily basis.
He is eminently well-placed to help the Gandhis ease into structural reforms, create mechanisms for collective decision-making, deepen internal democracy, revamp a decaying organisation and scout for new talent provided the family is willing to seize the moment and commit itself to real change.
Congress Party Needs To Rebuild Its Mass Appeal
Many of these are demands were made by the rebel group of 23 in a letter to Sonia Gandhi in 2020 after Rahul threw in the towel and walked away from the post of party president.
The G-23 blueprint for revival may well be what the Congress is looking for and Kharge may be the man to implement it.
It is significant that the accession of a non-Gandhi party president comes at a time when Rahul Gandhi has hit the road in the biggest mass contact programme by a national leader since late Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar undertook his famous padyatra as Janata Party president in 1983.
For the first time, Rahul is doing what he should have done all these months: connecting with ordinary folks in their setting and trying to dispel the elitist image he carries as a member of the first family of Indian politics.
It’s a five-month long marathon and seems to have generated enough enthusiasm among Congress workers as well in Rahul that there’s already talk of another padyatra, this time from east to west.
Without daring to draw comparisons, it may be recalled that Mahatma Gandhi never burdened himself with the nitty-gritty of organisational and administrative matters. He was the Congress president for just one year in 1923. The rest of the time went in Satyagraha, marches, connecting with people, and spending time on the ground to build a mass movement.
He fashioned himself as a moral compass and used people power to control the Congress and ultimately bring the British Empire to its knees. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Mahatma Gandhi was the supreme leader and wielded more clout than the party president.
Effective Role Division Can Be a Win-Win
With Kharge at the helm, Rahul Gandhi need not fear that the party will be taken away from him. He can leave the daily administration to Kharge and his team while he concentrates on taking the Congress to the people and infusing new energy into a moribund organisation.
There are two years still for the next general election and there are plenty of issues for Rahul Gandhi to pick up and weave into a compelling narrative. He has to stay the course and stop playing peekaboo politics with ill-timed disappearances.
Whether deliberate or inadvertent, Rahul may be on to something. Time will tell whether the election of a non-Gandhi as party president was just what the Congress needed or whether it’s business as usual.
(Arati R Jerath is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)