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Big Task Before Mallikarjun Kharge: Will He Be Able To Reform The Party?

As Kharge defeated his opponent Shashi Tharoor almost in a one-sided Presidential poll, speculations are rife over his tenure.

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Mallikarjun Kharge
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Defeating his opponent Shashi Tharoor by 6,825 votes, former Leader of the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge has taken over as the Congress party’s new president today. Becoming the first to assume the topmost position from outside the Gandhi family in over two decades, he has now joined an exclusive caravan. 

Notwithstanding the fanfare surrounding the contest, Kharge’s victory was very much expected. After all, Gandhis’ alleged backing reportedly had mustered bulk of the party’s support in his favour. But while clinching the top post proved easy, Kharge takes over the party at a difficult time. The Congress party is going through its worst ever phase and there is hardly any silver line at the horizon. In this backdrop, one must contemplate what are the tasks that lie ahead of Kharge?

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One of the early tasks of Kharge is to seriously revamp the party organisation. A meticulous effort in this direction is a must if the Congress wishes to regain its competitive edge. While reconstitution of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) through elections and revival of its Parliamentary Board have been voiced by many, Kharge would have to move further. The new president would have to proactively streamline Congress’ numerous state and district units. Many of the existing bodies were constituted and are functioning in an ad-hoc manner.

With efficiency losing out to the priority accorded to giving representation to various factions, most bodies have come to assume an unwieldy shape, often being led by multiple working presidents. All of this has only further intensified chaos and factional wars.

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Looking further downward, there should be no doubt that the Congress’ grassroots are in shambles. Over the last few years, there have been wholesale desertions of local committees in many regions. Even those who remained have become disillusioned and turned dormant. Kharge is responsible for bringing the party’s grassroots back to life. To do so the new president must transfer initiatives to local bodies along with instituting a monitoring system to overhaul the progress.

Kharge would also have to channelise his energies towards reinvigorating Congress’ frontal organisations. Bodies like Seva Dal, Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), Indian Youth Congress (IYC) and National Students Union of India (NSUI) that once had a strong activist orientation are today a faint shadow of their past.

Riddled by factionalism, often mirroring fault lines in the upper units and expected to passively toe the party line, these bodies are often used as adjuncts by powerful party bosses and have become mostly dormant. To resurrect these bodies, the new president can start by staffing them with more competent leaders, endowing greater autonomy and providing required resources. Having robust frontal organisation would in the long run help the Congress to penetrate newer segments of people.

However, to be able to strongly compete in polls, the Congress needs to seriously improve its election management. This is another area where Kharge would really have to devote a lot of attention. Over the years, the Congress has often failed to grab electoral opportunities due to faulty ticket distributions, factional squabbles during campaign and inability to read popular sentiment.

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Various quarters are demanding to set up a functioning Central Election Authority to handle polls. But if Congress’ past record is anything to go by, many of the weaknesses in the party’s election management originates from its top-down approach. If Kharge wants to regain Congress’ electoral vigour, he would do well to institute a decentralised ticket distribution mechanism, adopt a more technocratic approach to running elections and secure this process with multiple checks to enforce accountability.

Along with this, Kharge would also have to make an earnest effort to regain the support of social groups that have moved out of its fold. Congress’ ability to revive its fortunes is intricately tied to whether it manages to win back the confidence of Dalits, ethnic minorities and tribals.

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Towards this end, the new president would have to design a political programme that reflects a sincere commitment to these groups. But that alone would be not sufficient, unless Kharge is able to break the stranglehold of ineffective Congress leaders who continue to represent these groups in the party despite being hardly popular among the community.

Lastly, these steps would yield better results when the Congress also evolves a more consistent and effective ideological position. Under the leadership of the two preceding presidents, the Congress often was found to be oscillating between contradictory positions on secularism, economy and national security. Not only it failed to regain people’s trust; rather it proved to be counterproductive- further alienating the people.

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To reverse this, Kharge would have to craft an ideological stance for the Congress that has a genuine possibility of reconciling the polity’s diverse fault lines, is steadfast on its economic goals and embodies a more sincere commitment to values of selflessness, hard work and truth that it claims to represent.

Whatever has been suggested here would of course not be easy. And Kharge is likely to be confronted from many sides if he decides to genuinely transform the party. But every concrete step that Kharge takes in that direction would inject life into the ailing body of the Congress.

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(The writer is a doctoral student at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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