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On October 19, the Indian National Congress began the process of redeeming itself. That the party could undertake an internal electoral exercise – admittedly not without its imperfections – and, that Shashi Tharoor could secure more than a thousand votes should be seized as a transformational moment for itself and for democratic India.
The very fact that Mallikarjun Kharge’s name-plate would now adorn the 24, Akbar Road building should signal the much-needed process of re-institutionalisation of the office of the Congress president.
The family-fication of this office, under the two Gandhis, mother and son, has inevitably introduced very many debilitating aberrations. It is admirable that the Gandhis allowed and facilitated a non-family member to head the party organisation because October 19 carries with it an acknowledgement of the limits of the family bandwidth.
The Shashi Tharoor campaign needs to be applauded for forcing Kharge to assert publicly that if elected he would not be remote controlled by Sonia Gandhi. A brave declaration by the family’s “unofficial official” candidate.
Living up to that declaration will be the very crux of the change that new party president needs to produce. A man of the old order is now expected to usher in a new regime. It would not be an easy outing for Kharge. In many ways his task will be similar to that P.V. Narasimha Rao faced in the post-Rajiv Gandhi years – except that he would not have the resources of the Union government to establish his control as well as the Gandhis will remain very much around.
For some years now four distinct power centres have soured the Congress broth.
First, Sonia Gandhi. Though she has been content to cede the day-to-day control of the party to her son, she had remained the court of the last resort. She can be expected to be prepared to play the Rajmata . To the extent that the old crowd – a Lalu Prasad here or a Sharad Pawar there – has a measure of comfort with her political persona, Sonia Gandhi can be a useful asset in the larger context regrouping of democratic forces.
Second, there is Rahul Gandhi and his coterie.
For many years now this coterie is used to having the run of the AICC palace. Moreover, very many of these individuals have invested their time and intellectual capital in making Rahul Gandhi into a “supreme leader” and they are not just going to pack up their bags of tricks and intrigue and go home.
It would remain to be seen how Kharge can keep these boy-operatives in their place. Perhaps the new president can begin by finding himself a new general-secretary (organisation) in place of K.C. Venugopal.
Third, there is Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
Once content to play Hobbes to Rahul the Calvin, she is now smitten by her own ebullience. Used to promising PCC’s presidential job to a Navjot Singh Sidhu or a chief ministerial chair to a Sachin Pilot, Gandhi Vadra cannot possibly be expected to de-wean herself from the addictive involvement.
Fourth, there is the whole phalanx of ‘senior’ leaders – each of whom has worked out an individual modus vivendi with one of the Gandhis – who would find it problematic recognising the institutional dignity and authority of the new party president. These leaders, each competent and capable in his/her own way, will experience a kind of withdrawal symptom.
And, it will be Kharge’s challenge to enthuse and excite these leaders to experience once again the joys of collegiate functioning and of an esprit de corps. The onus will equally be on these leaders to render the requisite respect and deference to the new president.
The office makes a man, as per the old adage. After more than two decades, the Congress has a president who can talk of his humble origins. He would not find it beneath his dignity to attend office at 24 Akbar Road every day whenever in town. As a man who has been around for five decades he should know the vital importance of putting in place a vibrant team of general-secretaries.
And, if the new president can find ways and means of signalling that decision-making will be based on fairness and involvement, rather than arbitrariness and exclusion, then the Congress could present itself before the nation as an entity of coherence and purpose.
Admittedly, factionalism has been an ugly feature of the so-called Congress culture. The new president himself has experienced first- hand the dirty factional games in Karnataka that denied him a shot at the chief ministerial gaddi . Old habits will not fade away overnight but Kharge would do himself a lot of good if he could just keep the back-biters and the tale-carriers at an arm’s length. It is no exaggeration to suggest that there would be no dearth of intriguers wanting to carry tales between Akbar Road and the three Gandhis.
As per the Congress constitution, the president makes a very powerful office.
Kharge’s dilemma would be how not to be over solicitous of the Gandhis without demeaning his own office. As the newly elected President, Kharge it would be entirely consistent with his mandate to invite all those Congress leaders who left the party in recent years, to experience the joys of home-coming.
Ideally Kharge should be able to assert the full range of his office’s institutional authority to tap a new collective energy, a new sense of togetherness, and a sense of purpose, by elevating the organisation higher than any individual. Only then can the Congress hope to become the agent of democratic fight back against the creeping authoritarianism in India that is Bharat.