By Nilofar Suhrawardy
What can be said about speculations and questions being raised about democratic nature of Mallikarjun Kharge’s election as President of Congress Party? He won 7,897 votes against 1,072 secured by his rival Shashi Tharoor out of 8,969 votes. Of 9,385 votes 416 were declared invalid because of errors such as incorrect marking. Prior to results being officially declared, Kharge’s victory was viewed as “certain” as the party’s “official candidate”. Ahead of being elected Kharge had dismissed this tag of “official candidate” attached with his name as a creation of media. His decision to contest elections, according to him, was based on suggestion of senior party members. The nature of his victory is also being described as that of party leaders and stalwarts’ favoured candidate.
Notwithstanding these speculations, the fact that Kharge has been formally elected cannot be ignored. Equally significant is that Tharoor was not pressurized to step back from contesting for this post. His being able to secure nearly 12% party votes bears its own democratic significance. Congress has gone through this process- that of its President’s election- after around 22 years. True, despite Kharge’s election, key cards are likely to continue being exercised by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Nevertheless, Kharge’s election is probably indirectly an attempt to burst a much often used card by political rivals of Congress party- that of labelling its control by one family and viewing Sonia as a “foreigner”.
Comparison of Kharge and Tharoor’s political background places former on a firmer democratic ground. Prior to his joining political field, Tharoor’s career was primarily linked with external affairs, including United Nations. Kharge’s career literally began at grassroots as a union leader, leading agitations and fighting for legal rights of labour unions. Kharge began his political career in 1972, winning elections to Karnataka Assembly. He continuously won Assembly elections as a member of Congress till 2008. He joined Lok Sabha in 2009. He retained his Lok Sabha seat in 2014 but lost it in 2019. Tharoor began his electoral battle in 2009 by winning Lok Sabha elections. He succeeded in 2014 and also in 2019.
Democratically speaking, Kharge is clearly more firmly in grips with grassroots politics, as suggested by his background. Diplomatically of course, Tharoor ranks higher than him. But then the same cannot be said about Kharge and Tharoor’s democratic reach, down to the grassroots. Strong regional roots of both from their respective constituencies can certainly not be ignored. It is possible, at present, Kharge bears greater political importance, regionally as well as at other levels for Congress than Tharoor. Karnataka is headed for assembly elections within less than a year and that of Kerala is scheduled in 2026. In addition, election of Kharge – a Dalit- as Congress President may prompt Dalit votes to favour Congress in elections to Karnataka Assembly and also in 2024 parliamentary polls. Scheduled Castes comprise roughly 17% of votes in Karnataka. Kharge’s success in turning tide in his party’s favour by winning over their support may play a major role in in earning their votes in Lok Sabha elections and perhaps other states’ assembly elections.
Given his political background and committed loyalty to Congress, party stalwarts are probably hopeful that Kharge will play a key role in reviving the party’s diminishing fortunes, beginning with Karnataka Assembly. Undeniably, Tharoor’s loyalty towards the Congress also remains unquestionable. Irrespective of whether Kharge was the party’s “official nominee” or not, the political reality responsible for his success cannot be ignored. At present, his political background bears greater electoral importance for Congress than that of Tharoor.
Paradoxically, substantial noise is also being made about key reins of Congress being retained by Gandhi family despite Khagre being elected the party chief. If Gandhis choose to totally step back, national image and reach of their party is likely to be negatively affected. It needs to be noted, Kharge’s political importance and image is not the same at the national level as it is within Karnataka. Besides, it would be prudent for Gandhis to remain key commanders as any other move may lead to intra-party bickering and perhaps greater decline of the party. Congress loyalists in Karnataka may be pleased about Kharge being the party chief, but the same cannot be said about party members in other states.
Of course, the preceding point needs to be reconsidered from another angle, that is democratically. Well, the Congress has at least given Kharge the opportunity, via elections, to display his political strength in Karnataka and set the stage for party’s success at perhaps the national level. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s president is JP Nadda. BJP’s actual political command is however held and controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah. Trinamool Congress Party (TCP)’s image and control is linked with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Political command of Samajwadi Party (SP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and quite a few other parties has been confined to family members. Political ethics as well as control of these parties, including BJP and Congress, cannot be de-linked from their respective leaders’ image being strongly linked with their parties. From one angle, they have no option but to retain key reins of their parties. Where would BJP stand, if Nadda’s political image was given greater importance than that of Modi and/or Shah? Similarly, as suggested earlier, national image of Congress is linked strongly with Gandhi-family.
Quest for political power of practically all parties can apparently be linked with nature of democracy at several levels. Of this who heads the party formally perhaps holds minimal importance for voters at grassroots. What probably holds greater importance for latter during electoral campaigns and while casting votes is image and reach of leaders they link most strongly with parties vying for their electoral power!
Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy.