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Several Challenges Ahead For Mallikarjun Kharge: Will He Be Able To Survive The Tides?

While the Congress will have to pull its socks for the upcoming polls, there is lots to be done to settle scores within.  

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Real Change of Baton or mere Rhetoric? Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge welcomed by Gandhis
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Amidst the slogans ‘Rahul Gandhi Zindabad’, ‘Sonia Gandhi Zindabad’ when 80 years old Dalit leader Mallikarjun Kharge took over the baton of the Congress president today, it became clear that the questions over his independence within the party will not leave him soon. His speech, full of acclaims for the Gandhis also takes all the discussions towards that direction. However, if one goes deeper, there are other facets of his speech as well.  

Starting with an emotional tone in reference to his humble background, the son of a labourer said, “I started this journey in 1969 as a block committee chief today you have taken it such heights. It’s my privilege and pride to take forward the legacy of Congress, a party which has been guided by the likes of Mahatama Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.”  

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However, immediately after he entered the domain of his duties. Pointing at the upcoming Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections, he said, “We will have to show our party’s strength in these elections. If we all work hard and with dedication, we will achieve success. We are the soldiers of Mahatma Gandhi; we are not scared of anyone. When a Congress worker will get rid of his fear, then even the biggest of kingdoms will be defeated.”  

He also spoke of the resolutions of Udaipur Chintan Shivir and said that the proposal of 50% seat given to the leaders aged below 50 will be implemented. While these internal reforms are much required for the grand old party, are there other issues that must be given a fresh look? Here are a few challenges that will mark the tenure of the leader who never lost an election barring 2019.  

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Challenge 1: To Rein in Defections of MLAs and party workers 

The huge fanfare in support of Modi is not the only thing that has been disturbing for Congress. There are more to it.  

In the last few years, Congress MLAs and MPs were found crossing the fence to the BJP several times. From Goa, where 8 of their 11 MLAs changed camp despite taking pledge not to do so, to Gujarat where Congress MLA Harshad Ribadia recently joined BJP just ahead of the state assembly polls, the unity within the Congress is visibly in tatters.  

Not only MLAs, party cadres in numbers have been divorcing Congress. Recently in Bharuch, Gujarat, 300 Congress party workers shifted side. In August, 250 workers in Karnataka joined BJP and closer to time, on October 12, almost 700 Congress workers of Arunachal Pradesh took a safe leap toward the ruling party.  

This defection and lack of loyalty to the party will be a thing for Kharge to look into. Experts believe that such situation comes up when the party loses its ground level connect, a necessary instrument for gaining mileage in electoral democracy. So, the first and foremost thing for Kharge is to rein in Defection, the disease that is spreading fast throughout the body politic of the grand old party.  

Challenge 2: To create a Voice beyond the Dynasty  

The allegations of dynastic politics is not new to the Congress. However, this time what is new is the democratic election that was portrayed as free and fair despite allegations from Shashi Tharoor.  

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On one hand, Congress has been using this internal democracy to show their democratic commitment, on the other, Kharge is being seen as a ‘rubber stamp’ president who will follow the diktats of Gandhis. In this backdrop, it will be Kharge’s major responsibility to remove such unsolicited tags.  

To get out of these jibes, will Kharge have to disobey Gandhis publicly, at least for once? Not necessarily. If Kharge starts taking independent decisions within the party, the image can be repaired. The internal demands from a few sectors regarding voting in Congress Working Committee (CWC) and All India Congress Committee (AICC) will definitely help him to get rid of the image of Gandhi’s ‘yes man’.  

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One must not forget that it was BJP that used the removal of Sitaram Keshari in 1998 from the position of Congress president to anoint Sonia Gandhi as a tool to term the party dynastic and a ‘family rule’.  

In November, 2018, Prime Minister Narednra Modi himself challenged Sonia Gandhi to recruit a party president outside the family. In reference to the fate of Keshari he said, “The nation knows. Sitaram Kesri, how someone from the Dalit, oppressed, marginalised community was removed as party president. How he was locked inside a bathroom. How he was removed from the door, picked up and thrown on the footpath. And madam Soniaji was made to sit (as party president). This history India knows well. He became (party chief) out of compulsion, and they could not tolerate him for two years.” 

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So, to safeguard party from such jibes, Kharge has to rebuild himself as an independent leader who is not there to listen to any family.  

Challenge 3: To clarify the ideological position, restoring the Secular Credential  

Since Narendra Modi has come to power, Congress has been oscillating between Soft Hindutva and secularism. From Rahul Gandhi’s sacred thread flexing to his declaration of Shiv Bhakti, one finds the Congress stepping into competitive Hindutva to gain over Hindu votes.  

In 2019, when the Supreme Court gave its verdict in Babri Masjid demolition case and favoured the construction of Ram Temple, Congress, once the crucial voice against Babri demolition, unambiguously welcomed it.  

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Randeep Singh Surjewala, then the spokesperson of the party said, “The Supreme Court has delivered its judgment. As such, we support the building of a Ram temple in Ayodhya.” This certain change of the stance is disturbing for millions of Hindu secular voters who still find an option in Congress.  

The party’s silence over the latest politics of bulldozing that even touched the heart of Delhi makes it more of a silent spectator than a formidable opposition. Their opposition against the abrogation of article 370 in Kashmir was totally procedural, and moreover rhetorical as well.  

Keeping all these things in mind, the Congress, as Kharge rightly points out ‘Nehru-Gandhi’s Congress’ must have to fix its ideological position. To compete BJP in its own turf of Hindutva will be nothing except counterproductive.  

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If Kharge survives through these tides, he may look at the other opposition parties for an oppositional unity in the upcoming elections. But, to settle the cards of his own house seems to be the most important thing for now. He has to introspect and retrospect- as Sonia Gandhi rightly says, “Congress had faced several crisis earlier as well” and to learn from it is the only way ahead.   

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