In the AICC presidential polls, M K Kharge won 7,897 votes. Tharoor got 1072. Considering everything, Tharoor probably got more votes than he, or anyone else, expected. He should be happy— if the defeated can be at all happy. The important thing though is that we could all move on to the next story.
Which is that with Kharge supervising the organizational aspects of the Congress party, the Gandhi family’s backs are covered, and Rahul Gandhi can focus on creating a movement on the ground transcending party politics.
All through, Rahul stuck to his guns and said he will not contest for the position of President. He did more. He said he had no problem with Tharoor or anybody else running against the official candidate, Kharge. Now that Kharge has won, Rahul’s position as the most popular Opposition leader, backed not just by his party, but by people in general finds renewed endorsement.
Kharge is a Dalit. Dalits in India today are a hotly contested constituency. The BJP has gone all out to co-opt Dalits. It is positive affirmation with a vengeance, from the choice of the country’s president to national honors and awards.
Dalits represent about 25% of the population along with ST and SC. Muslims represent about 14 per cent of the population. If the Congress party is able to bring into its fold substantial sections of these two demographic bases, they should be able to give the BJP a good fight in the 2024 general elections.
A lot will depend on what Kharge does as the party leader. As the officially elected spokesperson of the party, he will need to bring the other Opposition parties to the talking table. Rahul Gandhi is pitching himself as a leader transcending party ideologies, a leader beyond any definable remit. When a collective Opposition strategy is discussed, he will take care not to set terms; he is more likely to talk in terms of principles. Bharat Jodo is a principle, not a negotiable term. This essentially means that Kharge and the others will have to do the talking.
This is not likely to be easy. Whether it is Nitish Kumar in Bihar, or Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, or K Chandrashekhar Rao in Telangana, the Opposition leaders in India have their eyes on the big prize: prime ministership. While Rahul Gandhi has taken them all by surprise with his drive and ambition, more historic than political, none of them is likely to offer an alliance if they are not seriously entertained as prime ministerial candidates. It is this applecart that Rahul has unwittingly upset.
That’s why Kharge has his task cut out. The number of votes that Shashi Tharoor polled is a surprise. It is likely Tharoor himself is the most surprised by the outcome. There would be the usual social media punditry that talks about the votes Tharoor pulled in as an indication to the invisible writing on the wall: that the Congress is ready for organizational change spearheaded by someone like Tharoor.
In hindsight, despite Tharoor’s genius for diplomacy and debate, he would have been instrumental in dividing the Congress party between Gandhi family loyalists and dissidents. And it would have been very difficult for Tharoor to manage the strife, given that he is more a British ‘parliamentarian’ than a typical Indian politician. He would have also found it hard to negotiate with other Opposition leaders. Tharoor’s debating talents could easily find the prospect and the pleasure of negotiations an end in themselves.
All which point to the fact that Rahul Gandhi might well have timed his Bharat Jodo Yatra as a political intervention to bring the party's rank and file to heel. This may not have been just cold strategy. Indeed, it could have been a measure borne of desperation. But it has ended up as the best thing that Rahul could have done to reinvent himself in full public view.
All in all, a consolidated and sorted Congress party is now in a better position to lead the fight against the BJP. Indians in the cities tend to gather information primarily from social media and private TV channels. But those who still listen to AIR news bulletins out of nostalgia or curiosity, or both, will know that the day begins and ends with prime minister Modi’s inaugurating functions, laying of foundation stones, and addressing rallies. Not much else exists or counts for Indian reality.
Rahul Gandhi’s political marathon has actually not happened if AIR is what one goes by. Nothing of interest happens in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Bihar, or Punjab. Officially, India has no Opposition. Indeed, even in national private channels, news anchors often treat the Opposition as superfluous, as mere whipping boys, to raise a laugh.
It is in this rather censored and censorious India that the 2024 elections are going to be fought. And the ruling BJP will do everything to hold on to power. It is into this dirty war that Kharge steps in as the Congress President. On record, as a senior and illustrious politician, he is not happy to be called a Dalit leader. Well, he must become one then. He has to mobilize the Dalits across political divides and bring them into the Congress fold. He has to use people like Tharoor and put a finesse on round table talks with other party leaders. He has to be both sectarian and accommodative.
If he does both successfully, and Rahul Gandhi does his bit working his ‘apolitical’ politics, then there is a chance that the Congress fortunes revive. Would this be enough to end the BJP sway in 2024? No, that would depend on actually how arrived the regional parties are. It is not just the BJP that has underestimated Rahul, and perhaps the Congress. It is the regional leaders as well, most of whom must be a bit disappointed at the turn of events. The present prime minister was once a chief minister.
(C P Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views are personal)