NEW DELHI: The Congress Wednesday finally got a non-Gandhi president after veteran leader Mallikarjun Kharge formally took over the reins of India’s oldest political party.
Apart from a lively challenge from Shashi Tharoor, Kharge – a Gandhi loyalist – found little resistance on his journey to the top spot in the party. But the real challenge is the way to go.
As president, Kharge is taking control of a party that is a sick version of its past, haunted by a series of electoral setbacks and the defection of high-level leaders.

Furthermore, being the first non-Gandhi leader to lead Congress in 24 years, Kharge will have the difficult task of maintaining an independent center of power while maintaining the interests of the three Gandhis (SoniaRahul and Priyanka) lined up.
Here’s what might be on Kharge’s mind as he takes the coveted post …
Electoral start
The first and most important task before Kharge would be to increase congressional electoral presence across India. Clearly, this can only be done by winning more state elections and stopping the party’s political slide.
Although Congress had lost its absolute dominance when Sonia took over in 1998, she was still a formidable force in many states. This is evident from the map below.


In 2006, the UPA under Congress had governments in as many as 16 states across India. This is just one less than the number of states currently under the NDA’s domain.
But in the last decade or so, Congress has been ousted in over a dozen states by the BJP or some regional party. Even in the states where party no. 2, Congress is now relegated to the forgettable third or fourth position.
Currently, Congress has its prime ministers in only two states: Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. In Jharkhand and Bihar, it is part of the government alliance.
If Kharge hopes to revive Congress, he will have to secure victories in more states, or at least in those where the party once enjoyed a strong presence.
However, given the unstoppable rise of the BJP and the diminishing fortunes of Congress, the task seems quite challenging.
The immediate test
Himachal Pradesh will go to the polls on 12 November. Elections are also scheduled in Gujarat. This means that Kharge barely has the time to organize his resources and focus on the two states tied to the vote.
So far, Congress has waged a rather silly campaign in both Himachal and Gujarat.
Opinion polls once again predict a BJP landslide in Gujarat. However, in Himachal, they are planning a close competition.
An early election victory would come as a shot in the arm for Kharge and give him the push he needs to take the party out of the shadows.
But if Congress fails to leave any mark, the new party leader will come under more pressure to get results next year.
A ‘6 times’ challenge
When Sonia first took the reins of Congress in 1998, the BJP had just tasted nationwide electoral success.
In 1998, the BJP-led NDA managed to form a shaky government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee despite a suspended parliament. The government fell a few months later, but Vajpayee returned to power in 1999, this time with a more decisive mandate.
Between the two elections, power in Congress changed hands Sitaram Kesari to Sonia Gandhi.

Although Congress lost its first election under Sonia in 1999, it ended up with a higher vote share than the BJP. She also managed to win 114 seats, compared to 182 in the BJP.
In the four Lok Sabha elections that followed, Congress drew a symbolic political arc of glorious ups and downs.
In both 2014 and 2019, the BJP won about 6 times the number of seats that Congress managed to get. Therefore, the challenge before Kharge is also 6 times bigger.
Balancing act
When Sitaram Kesari was the president of Congress before Sonia, he had to answer only to a Gandhi. Also a leader who had just joined the party full time.
For Kharge, things are quite different.
The leader of Karnataka takes office at a time when all three members of the Gandhi family are actively involved in the affairs of the party.

Sonia Gandhi is the president of the UPA, Priyanka Gandhi is the general secretary and Rahul Gandhi is the de facto head of the party.
As the head of Congress, Kharge will have to carefully balance the interests of all Gandhi members to ensure harmony between the leadership and the organization.
Although Kharge has the support of the Gandhis, he cannot afford to appear as a puppet leader or guided by a remote control.
With key leaders within the party seeking organizational reforms and questioning leadership, Kharge will need to serve as both a liaison and an independent authority to ensure long-term smooth functioning.
In addition to this, Kharge also faces the challenge of a generation gap in the party and has to maintain a balance between experience and youth in the future.
“Congress jodo” mission.
Rahul Gandhi may have embarked on a Bharat-jodo mission in multiple states, but what the big old party really needs is a Congress-Jodo mission.
Since the defeat of Lok Sabha in 2014, Congress has suffered a mass exodus of senior leaders, the latest of which is Ghulam Nabi Azad.
At least 460 leaders left Congress between 2014 and 2022.

High profile releases

About 177 MPs / MLAs left the party during the election, while 222 election candidates left Congress for other parties.
Leaders have left Congress on a variety of issues, from being unhappy with the style of functioning to not gaining enough prominence in the party.
Eventually, most of these defections ended up hurting the party in one way or another.
In the long run, Kharge will have to find a way to stem these defections and ensure harmony between the old guard and the new.
Personal CV
As the top Dalit leader of Karnataka, Kharge had an impressive election record.
He is known for not losing the election aside from Gulbarga’s 2019 Lok Sabha poll.
But for a leader tasked with leading Congress out of its current mess, Kharge’s record in crisis management wasn’t entirely impressive.
In 2014, Kharge was sent to Assam to quell discontent within Congress after Himanta Biswa Sarma raised the flag of the uprising against then CM Tarun Gogoi.
Although the majority of the MLAs wanted Gogoi to be ousted, Congress decided to persist with him. As a result, Sarma switched to the BJP and helped the saffron party decimate Congress in Assam and other northeastern states.
Then, in 2021, Kharge joined a three-member committee to resolve the crisis in Punjab sparked by a bitter brawl between Navjot Singh Sidhu and Amarinder Singh. Eventually, Amarinder was removed from the party and replaced with Charanjit Channi and Sidhu was elevated to the post of head of state.
However, the experiment did little to improve the party’s fortunes. He ended up losing status to the AAP.
Recently, Kharge was also sent to Rajasthan along with Ajay Maken to get a one-line resolution from congressional MLAs, authorizing Sonia to select the next prime minister of the state if Ashok Gehlot becomes party leader.
However, the MLAs staged an uprising on the prospect of Sachin Pilot becoming prime minister and refused to attend a key party meeting. Eventually, Gehlot was asked to withdraw from the Congressional presidential poll.
The brawl caused embarrassment to the party, especially at a time when Rahul Gandhi had embarked on the multi-state mission of Bharat Jodo.
Hence, Kharge hopes to improve his crisis management skills if he hopes to resurrect the great old party.
While the Rajasthan crisis has been nipped in the bud for now, it is sure to raise its ugly head again next year as the elections approach. Kharge will have to delicately manage the growing tensions between Gehlot and Pilot and find an amicable solution.
CWC elections
On the first day of taking charge, Kharge formed a 47-member steering committee that will function in place of the Congressional Working Committee (CWC).
There has been a growing demand within the party to hold elections for the CWC. It was 1997 when the last CWC elections were held.

CWC is the party’s highest decision-making body and has final authority over every crucial decision. According to the constitution of the Congress, the CWC is made up of the incumbent president, the party leader and 23 other members. Of these 23, 12 are elected by the All India Congress Committee and the remainder are appointed by the party president.
Kharge is expected to reconstitute the CWC soon after next year’s party plenary session.
The challenge before Kharge would be to coordinate closely with Team Rahul Gandhi as they fill seats.
Notably, Shashi Tharoor, who challenged Kharge for the top spot, didn’t find a seat on the new steering committee. It is difficult to say whether he will be considered for the CWC, despite some leaders calling for the inclusion of the parliamentarian from Thiruvananthapuram in the top panel.
Karnataka Challenge
In 2023, the president of Congress will face the onerous task of leading the party in nine general elections, including in his home state of Karnataka.
Karnataka will be of particular importance to Kharge as it is his home state and Congress is desperately seeking a return there.

The party was part of a short-lived government led by JD (S) before being ousted from power by the BJP in 2019.
Kharge will have to play a decisive role in resolving the infighting between two frontline leaders: Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar
Beyond that, Dalits’ votes in favor of Congress are also expected to swing.
(With input from agencies)

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