A first in 24 years . . .
The Indian National Congress, India’s oldest political party, has chosen a leader outside the Nehru-Gandhi family for the first time in 24 years. Mallikarjun Kharge, a career politician, swept Congress’s presidential elections despite being up against the charismatic three-time Indian Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor. Although popular nationally and internationally, Tharoor was no match for the octogenarian Kharge, a staunch Buddhist and a believer in democratic socialism and constitutionalism whose pragmatic approach to politics has won him respect. Congress is the only major national opposition to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Internal conflicts and factions . . .
When Rahul Gandhi stepped down as the Congress Party’s president in 2019 following a resounding loss in India’s general elections, many questioned who would lead the party and whether its leadership would have autonomy from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Many prominent Congress leaders defected to the BJP or formed their own parties, primarily due to their dissatisfaction with the party’s leadership. While Kharge is an eminent politician who has served as leader of the opposition in both of India’s legislative bodies, his loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and his suggestion that he would actively consult the family for major decisions, has left many wondering whether he is simply a proxy for the Gandhis. Rahul Gandhi, signalling that he and his family plan to maintain a prominent role in the party, has been undertaking a cross-country protest march to unite the “divided” country.
Combatting the rising popularity of Hindu nationalism . . .
Kharge faces an uphill battle over the next 18 months, not only in consolidating a fragmented political party that continues to lose senior leaders (Congress lost 197 MLAs and MPs between 2014 and February 2022) but also in building an attractive political ideology that can compete with the rising popularity of Hindu nationalism. As a Dalit (the lowest caste in the Hindu caste system) politician from southern India, Kharge will also need to overcome the challenges of winning over the northern electorate, appeal to the public across caste divisions, and capture the growing Indian youth population. His biggest battle might be in his home state of Karnataka, which has become a BJP stronghold where even the Dalits, who form roughly 23 per cent of the state’s population, are inclined towards the Hindu nationalist party.