India’s Congress party picks non-Gandhi president for first time in more than 20 years

Mallikarjun Kharge won 90 per cent of the 9,385 votes in the Congress party. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI – Former railway minister Mallikarjun Kharge has been elected Congress president, becoming the first leader outside the Nehru-Gandhi family to hold the post in over two decades, as the party seeks to revive its political fortunes.

As widely anticipated, the 80-year-old veteran politician defeated former United Nations diplomat-turned-politician Shashi Tharoor, winning 90 per cent of the 9,385 votes.

Still, the Nehru-Gandhi family’s hold on the party is not expected to weaken. The family has led the party for the most part since India’s independence from the British in 1947, and has given the country three prime ministers – Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, Ms Indira Gandhi and Mr Rajiv Gandhi.

Mr Kharge succeeds Mrs Sonia Gandhi, who held the post for 19 years and is Mr Gandhi’s widow. Her son Rahul took over the post for a period, but stepped away to take responsibility for the party’s 2019 general election defeat.

Mr Kharge is a staunch family loyalist and was widely seen as the unofficial choice of the family.

“I believe the revival of our party has truly begun today,” Mr Tharoor said in a statement amid allegations of electoral irregularities from his camp. 

Congress has seen its political fortunes plunge following the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The party suffered back-to-back defeats in the 2014 and 2019 elections, and has been unable to mount a political challenge against the BJP.

It currently has 53 seats as opposed to the BJP’s 303.

The Gandhis have been repeatedly blamed for the party’s poor showing in elections and have been the target of the BJP’s sustained political attack. 

In recent years, Congress has also been wracked by infighting, with senior leaders expressing frustration with a leadership vacuum and the departure of many political leaders like Mr Jyotiraditya Scindia to the BJP.

Mr Kharge is seen to have a tough task ahead in assuaging the concerns of senior leaders, reviving the party and mounting a political opposition to the BJP in the run-up to the 2024 general election.

He has promised reforms within the party, including 50 per cent representation for those under the age of 50 in different sections of the party. 

He told news agency Press Trust of India earlier he believed in “consultation and collective leadership”, and vowed to strengthen the organisational set-up of the party.

At the same time, he has underlined how it is “impossible to mobilise” the party without the Gandhis.

A member of the Dalit community and the son of a poor mill worker from southern India, Mr Kharge has had a long political career spanning state and federal politics over the past five decades. He has held ministerial posts in the former Congress government and is a former MP. 

Author and journalist Rasheed Kidwai said: “The real test (for Mr Kharge) will be whether he can steer the party towards an election win and make an impact. That is how he will be judged. I think the BJP is very good at unleashing a media war, and they will say the Gandhis have a new proxy.”

Mr Modi congratulated Mr Kharge on his appointment, wishing him a “fruitful tenure”.

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