The president assumes office in the backdrop of two major events. He was elected with Shashi Tharoor as a challenger who injected different thoughts and ideas during the campaign. His band of supporters would have to be integrated in the new scheme of things. The second instance was that Kharge takes office weeks after the party suffered a severe loss of face in Rajasthan when factions owing allegiance to Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot ran circles around the leadership's chosen emissaries – Kharge and Ajay Maken who returned without accomplishing the mission of a leadership change in the state.
The wait is over. After a prolonged period of uncertainty, the Indian National Congress finally found its new president in Mallikarjun Kharge, who becomes the second person after S Nijilingappa, from Karnataka to be elected to the office.
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The octogenarian takes over the reins of the grand old party from Sonia Gandhi, who had the unique distinction of over two decades as the president. It also brings to an end the uninterrupted run of the family at the helm of affairs of the Congress since 1998.
The new Congress president takes office at a difficult juncture when its presence in Parliament and state Assemblies has shrunk into a miniature version of the party that basked in glory less than a decade ago.
The political landscape has altered since 2014 and the Congress is staring at twin challenges both from within and outside. During the last eight years, the Bharatiya Janata Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party leader Amit Shah catapulted the party to the pole position in the country.
While preparing to pick up the gauntlet in an unequal contest with the BJP, the Congress under its new leadership will have to first come to grips with the severe lack of thrust and focus inside the organisation.
To check the state of drift in the party will be among the foremost tasks of the new president even as the former president Rahul Gandhi is undertaking the Bharat Jodo Yatra to spread the message of togetherness and brotherhood among the people.
By the time the Yatra comes to an end, the Congress party hopes the message will gradually sink in and raise consciousness that could assist the party in clawing back chunks of space occupied by parties of different persuasions.
What is crucial is the extent of support Kharge gets from the two former presidents Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul. Party workers would accord legitimacy to the change of leadership only when the family members continue to stand with the new president. By all accounts, Kharge enjoys the confidence of the Gandhis which should allow smooth navigation of the ship.
Tasks to correct the course would be to prioritise and align the party compass to the latest declaration at the Udaipur convention that identified 'Indian Nationalism' as the core character of the party. The convention held earlier this year also drew a roadmap that the new chief will have to implement.
His age notwithstanding, Kharge has demonstrated immense energy in his role as the Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha and should bring similar vigour to his new role.
The president assumes office in the backdrop of two major events. He was elected with Shashi Tharoor as a challenger who injected different thoughts and ideas during the campaign. His band of supporters would have to be integrated in the new scheme of things.
The second instance was that Kharge takes office weeks after the party suffered a severe loss of face in Rajasthan when factions owing allegiance to Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot ran circles around the leadership's chosen emissaries – Kharge and Ajay Maken who returned without accomplishing the mission of a leadership change in the state.
Kharge as the president will have to take a call on how to deal with a Chief Minister's men who snubbed the High Command while ensuring any action does not result in causing incalculable harm to the party's prospects in the assembly elections next year. At the same time, the Rajasthan episode should not encourage open defiance by party units elsewhere.
Handling Rajasthan will be the first test of the Congress president who will also have to hit the ground running in launching a political campaign in Himachal Pradesh where elections for the new assembly will be held next month and strap up for Gujarat polls which would follow thereafter.
Given the cyclic nature of the change of government in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, Congress is hoping to wrest power back from the BJP. The presence of Aam Aadmi Party could queer the pitch for the Congress which will sorely miss Virbhadra Singh, whose hold in both upper and lower regions of the state was legendary.
On the external front, Congress has over two years to prepare a blueprint to reshape its strategy for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections in the face of a humongous challenge posed by the BJP. The Congress electoral performance in the last two polls left the party and its workers dejected. Can the party get its electoral match right by offering realignment of forces opposed to the BJP or strike a strident note by insisting to lead the formation of such an arrangement?
The Congress does have an all-India presence and can bounce back to reclaim the space it vacated. For that to happen, the party will have to offer an alternate vision for the country and its changed polity that compels people to first take note of Congress and consider it as an option.
Kharge can also draw a leaf out of Nijilingappa's presidency who is credited to build the party after Congress suffered severe losses in the 1967 elections with reduced numbers in the Lok Sabha and loss of eight states. Later, he remained in office when the 1969 split resulted in two formations, the Congress (Requisitionists) led by Indira Gandhi and the Congress (Organisation) comprising the old guard. The climb ahead of Kharge is both steep and difficult.
— KV Prasad is a senior journalist and has earlier worked with The Hindu and The Tribune. Views expressed are personal.
Read his other columns here
First Published: IST