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VIEW | Congress presidential polls see candidates who don't tick the boxes

VIEW | Congress presidential polls see candidates who don't tick the boxes

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By Vikas Pathak  Sept 30, 2022 10:09:39 AM IST (Published)

If the Congress had gone in for an open contest for the post of party chief after Rahul Gandhi had resigned as Congress president in the wake of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls debacle, the Congress would have had candidates to tick the boxes.

The Congress has after decades decided to open the post of party chief to an electoral contest from outside the Nehru-Gandhi family. However, the democratic turn comes three years late.

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Shashi Tharoor, Digvijaya Singh and Mallikarjun Kharge have thrown their hats in the ring, after Ashok Gehlot bowed out after apologising to Sonia Gandhi for the mass rebellion of MLAs supporting him in Rajasthan.
The present lot of candidates is unlikely to reverse the fortunes of the grand old party.
What the Congress needs to challenge the BJP is to dent the 'mainstream' Hindu votes in north, central and western India, the meta-region north of the Vindhyas where the BJP derives its electoral fire power from.
If the Congress had gone in for an open contest for the post of party chief after Rahul Gandhi had resigned as Congress president in the wake of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls debacle, the Congress would have had candidates to tick the boxes.
It had Ashok Gehlot, a popular leader in Rajasthan admired even by BJP supporters and a Hindi-speaking OBC. It had Jyotiraditya Scindia, the Hindi-speaking Maratha leader from the Chambal division of northern MP. It also had Captain Amarinder Singh, a war veteran who took a tough line against Pakistan and could have appealed to the ‘mainstream’ north Indian populace as a person who ticked the box of hyper-nationalism.
But by the time Congress made up its mind to have a full-time president to replace Sonia Gandhi as acting president, two of the above had quit the party and one is a diminished version of himself after the Rajasthan rebellion within the party.
Among the present contestants, there is only one person from the Hindi belt – Digvijaya Singh. However, try as he might to shake off the image, he has already been painted as 'anti-Hindu', nine temples in his Raghogarh Fort and his daily puja notwithstanding.
Tharoor is from Kerala, a state where the BJP does not exist because the demography – Muslims and Christians taken together constitute 45-percent of the population there – does not support it. He is also extremely Anglicised and polished, and the BJP can easily point towards him and label him as elitist, projecting Modi as the son of the soil who toiled his way up in defiance of the Lutyens’ elite.
Kharge is from Karnataka and also happens to be a Dalit. However, he will be unable to influence the BJP’s core vote of Lingayats if he becomes party chief. As for the north of the Vindhyas, Kharge is no challenge to Modi, symbolically speaking.
The new president will, thus, just take charge of organisational work, allowing Rahul Gandhi to travel across the country till 2024, which isn't a bad policy in itself, as it may help Gandhi beat some of the negative publicity of being a non-serious, part-time politician. However, the task is easier said than done, as Gandhi, despite his celebration by a bunch of liberal intellectuals, is not a favourite of the masses in north India. He has to start from scratch, and he has just a year-and-a-half to capture the imagination of the masses.
The Gehlot crisis was mishandled by the party leadership. If Gehlot was asked to contest for party president, he should have been asked to resign as Rajasthan Chief Minister only if he won, and he should also have been asked to give three names of his choice, from among whom the party would pick his successor as the chief minister. To ask him to resign so as to replace him with his bete noire Sachin Pilot as Chief Minister looked more like a shunting out than an elevation. For, the post of Congress president is at this juncture a crown of thorns. It is highly likely that the BJP will return to power in 2024 and, given the Congress culture of shielding the family, Gehlot and not Rahul Gandhi will be blamed for the debacle and perhaps be forced to resign. Aware of this likely twist in the tale, Gehlot would obviously want his nominee as the Congress leader in Rajasthan rather than someone hostile to him.
The party has opened up to a president from outside the family a bit too late. It has done so after losing the north-east to the BJP by letting go of Himanta Biswa Sarma, losing Punjab by allowing a running feud between Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu to destroy the party, endangering its prospects in MP by letting Scindia quit the party, and now splitting the Congress down the middle in Rajasthan just a year before the assembly polls.
The grand old party has failed to learn from past mistakes. And even when it seems to learn, the lessons it learns are the ones that don’t help it.
Vikas Pathak is a columnist and media educator. The views expressed are personal
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