Sunil Gatade | The right man at the right time for the Congress
Deccan Chronicle.| Sunil Gatade
Congress leader Sonia Gandhi greeting newly elected party president Mallikarjun Kharge in New Delhi. (AP)
At 80, Mallikarjun Kharge has got a big break. Whether someone believes it or not, it is true and time will tell. To become president of the Grand Old Party of India at such a crucial time is a big responsibility and also a big opportunity.
Nearly three decades back, who had ever thought that then Karnataka chief minister H.D. Deve Gowda would become Prime Minister of India all of a sudden? Someone might say that it was a "once in a blue moon" thing, then it is equally true that India’s democracy does spring surprises off and on.
The refrain in the Opposition camp is that unity is the need of the hour as the battle is not just for power, but for sheer survival. A section of the Opposition is insisting that the battle ahead can be fought effectively and could even be won only if the Congress is on board in full measure. There are several states in which the Congress is the main opponent of the BJP.
The fact of the matter is that by making the Dalit leader from Karnataka the party’s president, the Congress has not only sought to remove the "dynasty" tag but has also signalled that it’s a party that cares for the downtrodden. The last Dalit leader to don the mantle was late Jagjivan Ram in the early 1970s.
With the Lok Sabha elections just 17 months away, the task before the Opposition -- that is making serious efforts to become united -- is not who should become the next Prime Minister. They want to see the back of incumbent Narendra Modi, who has brought mammoth challenges in front of his detractors, debilitating them in every way.
The BJP might be crying hoarse from the rooftops that there is no match for Mr Modi. But the world’s largest party may not realise that the Opposition does not need a "Modi" among them as this might even be counterproductive for unity.
In 2004, the "TINA" (There Is No Alternative) factor was cited by the then establishment to impress upon everyone that there was no match for Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. And we know what happened!
Right now, the fact is that the Congress is down in the dumps and can only go up. Faced with two successive debacles in the Lok Sabha polls, it has finally taken the plunge outside the First Family for the first time in nearly a quarter century by electing Mr Kharge as its party president.
A contest for the top post has done a lot of good for the party as Mr Kharge’s opponent, Shashi Tharoor, had raised quite an important issue during the campaign, which can’t be brushed off. While Mr Kharge won easily, the good show put up by Mr Tharoor sent the message loud and clear that party workers are seeking a change in organisation’s working.
At the same time, it is equally true that Rahul Gandhi’s firm rejection of suggestions that he or any member of the Gandhi family should enter the presidential fray led to Mr Kharge becoming head of the party.
It is very easy to dub Mr Kharge as a proxy of the Gandhis, but those who do so overlook the dynamics of politics. Leaders who’ve spent a lifetime in politics don’t become any "Tom, Dick and Harry" of their mentors. If Mr Kharge was a mere proxy, most of the G-23 leaders, who have been agitating for change in the party’s procedures and practices, would not have supported him.
The ball is now in Mr Kharge’s court. It depends upon how he gets on with the task. The plate of the 80-year-old leader is full. It will test his grit and determination over how he goes about getting the Grand Old Party shipshape. With 2024 looming, there is no time to lose. Like an expert chef, Mr Kharge must evolve and develop a recipe for success for a party which has almost forgotten the winning post for nearly a decade.
That, of course, is much easier said than done. What is needed is a total shakeup of the organisation at different levels to bring forward the next generation without antagonising the experienced hands. It’s a tricky task but there are no shortcuts for success.
Mr Kharge’s forte is his persistence and perseverance, which helped him to rise to the occasion when he was suddenly made the Congress’ leader in the Lok Sabha in the last Parliament, when the party had not just lost power but was reduced to just 44 in a House of 543. Even in the eyes of his detractors, Mr Kharge passed the test with flying colours.
Age is certainly not on his side. But he does have the maturity that comes with experience. The Congress needs it badly in fashioning its response to the BJP, which is in top gear with the agenda of polarisation.
Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra evoking a positive response has gladdened the hearts of Congress workers who feel the party is finally getting its act together. Mr Tharoor has aptly remarked that the election of Mr Kharge as party president has truly started the process of revival of the organisation.
In the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, Mr Kharge will face Assembly polls in 12 states and Union territories. The elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat are due soon. These will decide the shape of things to come in the "mother of all electoral battles" in April-May 2024.
The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.