As foretold, Mallikarjun Kharge has won the contest to become the Congress president. He will take charge on October 26. The challenge of the contest would not have prepared him for his innings at the helm of the country’s oldest surviving party. The party desperately needs new disruptive energy, but Mr. Kharge embodies stability at the cost of dynamism. His ageing shoulders have to carry the burden of expectations of not only the Congress workers but also of all those in India who hope the wobbling party finds its feet soon. Mr. Kharge will have to shake off the tag of being a representative of the establishment, and his starting point should be the Udaipur declaration of the party that vowed to curtail the prevalent practice of a handful of families cornering numerous political positions and open up the party to younger, diverse sets of people. His first photographs after winning the election had his son, a Congress politician, in the frame, which was bad optics. The Congress must have a fair and more balanced representation for various castes, genders, regions and professional and social backgrounds in order to be able to challenge the totalising politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party. As the new president, Mr. Kharge will have to get the Congress in fighting shape and also reach out to potential partners and the wider public by articulating a refreshed ideological and moral purpose of the party.
The three members of the Gandhi family will remain the last word in the Congress and Mr. Kharge’s election is itself the latest proof of that, though an original plan to install Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot at the helm went awry. While the Congress can take pride in the fact that it raised the standards of inner party democracy, attempts by several officials of the party to tilt the scale in Mr. Kharge’s favour were unmistakable. Mr. Kharge’s legitimacy comes from the Gandhi family, and an election process that was dignified by the erudite candidacy of Shashi Tharoor. Mr. Tharoor and his supporters have also been eloquent in reiterating their loyalty to the family throughout the process. It is in the 1,000-plus votes that Mr. Tharoor garnered that the Gandhis, Mr. Kharge and the party must look for the vitality that they sorely need. The Congress needs a range of competent leaders — those with organisational roots and experience such as a Mr. Kharge, and those with a wider appeal, and representing aspiration and change such as a Mr. Tharoor. The first test of the winner’s mettle and promise will be how treats his vanquished opponent. The space for dissent and discussion must not be lost.