Colombo, October 20 (Counterpoint): In a landmark event this month, an 80-year-old party warhorse, Mallikarjun Kharge, won the Presidential election in India’s Congress party, beating 66-year-old diplomat-turned politician Shashi Tharoor securing 7,897 out of the 9,385 votes polled. Kharge, belonging to Karnataka in South India, is the first person not from the Indira Gandhi family, to take charge as Congress President in the past 24 years.
Kharge’s victory has considerable significance for the Congress in the present Indian political context when all political parties are engaged in ground work for the 2024 parliamentary elections.
During the party election campaign, Kharge was portrayed in the media as the candidate of the “Gandhis” – Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka – and therefore as a symbol of the existing “lousy” order in the Congress party, marked by dynastic rule and electoral defeats. Tharoor, on the other hand, was portrayed as a dashing gladiator, a rebel who wants to clean the party stables and make it relevant for the young “aspirational classes” that the Bharatiya Janata Party Narendra Modi is supposedly catering to with noticeable success.
The media had been hoping that Tharoor would win, but the reasons for the hope were not the same. Some wanted a Tharoor victory to strengthen the Congress and make it fighting fit to take on the formidable BJP in the 2024 parliamentary elections, and some wanted his victory only to demolish the Gandhis as a political force and obliterate Jawaharlal Nehru’s political legacy of secularism and liberal democracy.
The media was also dazzled by Tharoor’s impressive personality, his felicity with the English language, his scholarship and his diplomatic experience having served the UN in the highest echelons. He was supposedly the Congress party’s answer to the demands of India’s “aspirational classes” (the upwardly mobile classes wanting to make India a world power). Modi is supposed to have won the 2014 parliamentary elections on the basis of his appeal to the aspirational classes. Sensing the sentiment, the BJP had touted the idea of an India free of the Congress (Congress Mukt Bharat) and that was accepted.
However, subsequent events showed that economic performance had not been the principal reason for the BJP’s repeated successes in the State Assembly elections and the parliamentary election of 2019. These successes had been very substantially due to its championing of “Hindutva”, which is a political plank involving the consolidation and harnessing of the power of India’s Hindu majority in opposition to the minorities, especially the Muslims, secularists and liberals.
Since Hindutva politics is connected to enmity with Pakistan, a Muslim country that had hived off from India in 1947 amidst communal rioting, Modi and the BJP were able to use confrontations with Pakistan on the issues of terrorism and Kashmir, to good electoral effect. The highlighting of Hindu power and confrontations with Pakistan helped portray the Congress as weak in asserting the rights of the majority Hindus and also of India.
It is noteworthy that the BJP’s electoral victories took place regardless of India’s lackluster economic performance, the downfall of small and medium enterprises and rising unemployment since 2014.
In addition to portraying itself as the messiah of India’s aspirational classes, the BJP has been busy garnering support from India’s traditional social groups – the various castes. While accusing the Congress and other parties of pandering to caste interests rather than “Hindu” interests, the BJP has also been accommodating caste aspirations by politically visible moves. It was the caste factor which led to the choice of Draupadi Murmu, a tribal, for India’s Presidency. Tribes occupy a social position below the Dalits in the Hindu caste hierarchy. The BJP has, in fact, been beating the Congress in its own game of exploiting caste sentiments.
The Congress party had to match the BJP in terms of these parameters. It had to live down its image of being an aliens’ party led by an Italian- Sonia Gandhi and her children. It also had to have a leader who is not Westernized and English speaking and is socially and culturally rooted in the Indian soil. Kharge is a firm opponent of BJP’s Hindutva and communal politics but he is quintessentially Indian in thought, word and deed.
Tharoor, with his British accent and Westernized mannerisms, just did not fill the bill from the point of the cultural requirement. Though he has a written a book on Hinduism and can speak in Hindi and Malayalam, he is clearly at a remove from the typical Indian cultural milieu.
Kharge, on the other hand, is a Dalit, the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy, a man of the soil and anything but Western. His rustic look, homespun manners and approach make him more approachable to the average Congress party worker. On the contrary, Tharoor’s background, upbringing and life experiences, could be intimidating to the humble party worker.
Above all, Tharoor is not a professional politician. Though he has won three elections to parliament in a row, there is no guarantee that he will stick to politics, if defeated. His staying power is yet untested. Those who stray into politics after retirement from another profession (like Tharoor) are not guaranteed to stay on after one or two electoral defeats. Since he is a liberal, at times his views had been contrary to the party line. For this he was sacked from the post of party spokesman.
Tharoor was one of the group of 23 second –rung party leaders who wrote to Sonia Gandhi in 2020 seeking large scale party reforms. “The longer the Congress waits to get its act together, the greater the risk of a steady erosion of our traditional vote bank and their gravitation towards our political competitors,” Tharoor said. Most controversially, he said that Congress needed a leader “who has not been jaded by being entrenched within the current system for too long.”
Kharge on the other hand is a professional politician and an unwavering party man. He started as a labor leader in 1969 and has not strayed out of politics since then. He is a veteran who had won all but one of the 12 elections he had stood for. He had been member of the Karnataka Assembly as well as parliament. He is Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, and Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Indian Minister of Railways, Rural Development, Labour and Employment.
Tharoor’s experience, on the contrary, has been predominantly abroad and in the UN, though he had been a junior minister in the Congress government holding the portfolios of Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs and had actively participated in parliamentary committees. He has had no Congress party experience, except for successfully running his election campaign thrice from one constituency, Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala.
Political experience is the sine qua non for a successful political career and Kharge has a fund of it in contrast to Tharoor. Kharge had worked up from the grassroots level to the top both at the State and the Central level. Being a grassroots-level politician from a depressed community, Kharge could be a role model in politics like Narendra Modi.
Lastly, Kharge has been steadfast Congress party man who will not challenge the party line or the final authority of the Gandhis – Sonia and Rahul. Like every Indian political party, the Congress too has its unquestionable Supremo (presently it has two Supremos – Sonia and Rahul Gandhi). Paying obeisance to the Supremo is essential for survival in the Congress, just as in the BJP, obeisance to Modi and Amit Shah is mandatory. No party leader, or no party for that matter, will tolerate a rebel in the top post of President. Tharoor is a rebel in contrast to Kharge, a blind loyalist.