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Can a non-Gandhi president revive India's Congress party?

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
October 20, 2022

The Congress party held onto power for decades. But despite its new leadership, the party's near-term prospects continue to look bleak after the loss of two national elections in a row.

Newly elected president of India’s main opposition Congress party Mallikarjun Kharge
Kharge's election as Congress chief comes at a time when the party's prospects look bleaker than everImage: Manish Swarup/AP Photo/picture alliance

India's Congress party on Wednesday appointed an octogenarian politician  as its president. For the first time in 24 years, it is somebody who is not from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Mallikarjun Kharge, 80, was elected by members to replace Sonia Gandhi as president of the once-mighty party that played a major role in winning independence from the UK in 1947.

The Indian National Congress held onto power for decades, but is now a shadow of its former self. After losing two general elections, in 2014 and 2019. it is in opposition at the federal level.

Kharge faced off against Shashi Tharoor, 66, a former under-secretary-general of the United Nations who had campaigned for "change" in the party.

But Kharge, who is close to the Gandhi family, won a resounding majority, receiving more than 80% of the ballots cast.

"By electing a family loyalist, Congress delegates have in fact chosen continuity over the changes that Shashi Tharoor campaigned for. This election will not alter the culture of deference towards the Gandhi family, who de facto remain the symbolic heads of Congress," Giles Verniers, a political scientist at India's Ashoka University, told DW.

Winds of change for Congress?

Kharge had been widely seen as a frontrunner even before votes were cast on October 17.

It was the sixth time in the Congress party's nearly 137-year-old history that an electoral contest decided who would take up the mantle of party president.

Kharge will take over from Sonia Gandhi, who has served as interim president since her son, Rahul Gandhi, stepped down from the post following the party's debacle in the 2019 general elections.

Rahul Gandhi on a stage in 2022
Rahul Gandhi aims to revive the party's sagging electoral fortunes ahead of the 2024 general elections with his cross-country rallyImage: Kabir Jhangiani/ZUMA Press Wire/picture alliance

In his first remarks after winning the election, Kharge highlighted the sacrifice of Sonia Gandhi and praised the initiative of Rahul Gandhi, who is trying to create a people's movement against bigotry through his ongoing cross-country "unity" march.

"I want to thank Sonia Gandhi on behalf of all party workers. Under her leadership, we formed our government at the center twice," said Kharge.

Congress faces challenging times

Kharge's election comes at a time when the Congress party's prospects look bleaker than ever.

It has lost one state election after another since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in 2014. Congress is currently in power in just two of the India's 36 states and federally controlled territories.

It has been beset by high-profile exits and defections, as well as intense intra-party rivalry among various political factions.

The challenge for Kharge now will be to unite and reenergize the party, as well as come up with a vision that he can present to voters as a credible alternative to that offered by the BJP.

Some party insiders say it will become clear within a few months if the experiment of installing a non-Gandhi president is working and whether Kharge is able to implement much-needed organizational reforms. 

"We will know if he is his own man and not influenced by the sway of the Gandhi family in some time. That will be the true test as he knows the workings of the party well," a senior Congress functionary, who asked not to be named, told DW.

Saving the party from political oblivion

The upcoming legislative elections in the states of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat are among the first challenges that Kharge will face.

In both states, Congress will take on the BJP but also have to contend with the Aam Admi Party (AAP), which is emerging as a serious player.

While Kharge has the stature and political experience to play a key role in reaching out to leaders of other opposition parties, he also has to come up with a blueprint for the 2024 general elections to ensure that his party is at the center of any anti-BJP alliance that might take shape.

"The election of a new party president is just one step among many to put the Congress party on a path of revival," Verniers said.

"Gathering resources, building organization, strengthening state and local units, defining a political line that connects with voters, are not tasks that can be handled by a single individual, however experienced they may be," he added.

The "Bharat Jodo Yatra" or "Unite India Rally," of Rahul Gandhi is also gathering momentum as the senior Congress leader aims to revive the party's sagging fortunes ahead of the 2024 general election.

His 3,570-kilometer-long (2,218 miles) tour on foot of Indian cities, towns and villages is aimed at countering the increasing religious divide, rising unemployment, the escalating cost-of-living crisis, and the weakening of democratic institutions.

After Kharge's election, Rahul Gandhi pointed out that "the new president will decide what my role will be.”

Verniers said that the cross-country rally was an attempt by Gandhi to reclaim parts of a public sphere saturated by the BJP's communication machine.

"It may generate goodwill towards Rahul Gandhi but it is doubtful, however, that it will translate into electoral gains in incoming state elections or in the next 2024 general election," he underlined.

According to political scientist Zoya Hasan, reforms are needed to reverse the party's decline into political oblivion.

"A revised ideological line combined with an organizational revamp can bring the party back in the reckoning," she said.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru


Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11