India’s main opposition Congress Party has elected a new leader from outside the Nehru-Gandhi family for the first time in more than two decades as it tries to improve its political fortunes that have tumbled dramatically since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party rose to power in 2014.     

Mallikarjun Kharge, a party veteran and former federal minister, will take charge from interim president Sonia Gandhi.   

The 80-year-old leader received more than 80 percent of the votes cast by at least 9,300 Congress Party delegates, easily trouncing his rival, Shashi Tharoor, a member of parliament and former United Nations diplomat.    

India’s “Grand Old Party” is historically led by the Gandhi family but has faced a leadership vacuum since Rahul Gandhi, son of Sonia Gandhi, quit as president in 2019 after the party suffered a crushing defeat in general elections for a second time.   

The downslide of the once-dominant party that ruled India for nearly six decades has continued in recent years with losses in a string of state elections. It now governs only two of India’s 28 states.    

It remains to be seen whether Kharge can provide the charismatic leadership the dispirited party needs to mount a credible challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has emerged as one of India’s most powerful leaders in recent decades, say analysts.     

After Wednesday’s election, Kharge said that the Congress Party had always strengthened the country’s democracy and protected the constitution. “Now when democracy is in danger, the constitution is being attacked and institutions are being threatened, the Congress Party has set an example by holding a democratic election for president,” he said.   

Political analysts said the election for the top post does offer an opportunity to the party. “This is an important moment in the Congress Party,” said Rahul Verma, fellow at New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research. “At the same time, just electing a new leader does not mean that the party can come out of the crisis it is facing very soon. It is a long haul and will depend on what Kharge brings to the table. What the party needs is clarity on its big ideological message that resonates with India.”  

Shedding Gandhi image 

Analysts say the BJP has gained ground not just due to its own popularity, but due to the absence of an effective opposition capable of offering voters a credible alternative. In particular, Rahul Gandhi was not seen as an effective challenger to Prime Minister Modi. 

The election for the top post was aimed at helping the Congress Party shed its “dynastic” image – an accusation that the ruling BJP has levied against it. Senior BJP leaders often refer to Rahul Gandhi as an “entitled prince” and portray him as the ineffectual scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Those allegations may not entirely be put to rest by the election for the top post. Political analysts say that the Gandhis will continue to remain a powerful force in the party, as Kharge is seen as being a Gandhi family loyalist.    

“His victory was a foregone conclusion. It was widely thought he had the support of the Gandhis, even though Sonia Gandhi had said they were not backing either of the two candidates,” according to Neerja Chowdhury, a political analyst. Kharge had been dubbed the “unofficial official candidate” of the Gandhis by local media.   

Shashi Tharoor, who said he stood for bringing “change” to the Congress, had complained of an “uneven playing filed” in the runup to the poll and pointed out that senior party leaders had openly backed Kharge.   

“Still, it is an important step that somebody other than the Gandhi family will be in the saddle,” Chowdhury pointed out. “At least they will not be leading from the front.”  

In recent years, several senior Congress leaders have quit in frustration over the party’s failure to overhaul itself under Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, who have been at the helm of the party since 1998.   

Any signs of the party’s revival will only be known in the coming months when several states hold local polls.  

“For any leader, the challenge is to win elections and we will see whether the party can put up a good performance, particularly in the southern state of Karnataka, to which Kharge belongs,” said Verma. “In the runup to the 2024 general elections, they will have to win some states.”   

 

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