Hours after filing his nomination form for the Congress presidential election on Friday, Mallikarjun Kharge had sent his resignation from the post of Leader of the Opposition (LoP) in the Rajya Sabha to incumbent party chief Sonia Gandhi. Though Mr. Kharge did so in keeping with the Congress’ Udaipur declaration on the “one man one post” principle, a senior person in the LoP’s office told The Hindu that he wanted Ms. Gandhi to choose the party’s LoP nominee in the Rajya Sabha. “He [Mr. Kharge] doesn’t want to choose his own successor when he becomes the party president. So, he wants Ms. Gandhi to choose the next LoP as soon as possible,“ the source cited above said.
In terms of seniority and experience, former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh are the two most serious contenders for the LoP’s position. But given that Mr. Kharge, considered a favourite to be the next party chief, is from south India, Mr. Singh may have an edge. The Congress may not want to have both the party president and the LoP from south India.
On Saturday, the race for the Congress president’s post narrowed down to Mr. Kharge and Shashi Tharoor, with the nomination form of the third contender, K.N. Tripathi from Congress’ Jharkhand unit rejected because of discrepancies. “It’s now a straight fight,“ the party’s central election authority (CEA) chief Madhusudan Mistry said, adding, “In Mr. Tripathi’s form, after scrutiny, it was found that there was a mismatch of signatures.”
A week is left until October 8 for a contestant to withdraw but the Congress is all set to witness a vote on October 17 as Mr. Tharoor has already indicated that he will not step back. “Delighted to learn that, following scrutiny, Shri @kharge and I will be squaring off in the friendly contest for President of @incIndia. May the Party and all our colleagues benefit from this democratic process!” tweeted Mr. Tharoor, who launched his election campaign from Nagpur by visiting the Deekshabhoomi memorial of B.R. Ambedkar.
Irrespective of the outcome of the battle, the next non-Gandhi Congress president faces a daunting task in setting things right.
The single biggest challenge for the Congress is to win back the trust and confidence of voters. Since the 2014 General Elections, when the party was reduced to 44 Lok Sabha seats, it has seen a continuous downward slide in its electoral fortunes. In his resignation letter to Ms. Gandhi, former party stalwart Ghulam Nabi Azad wrote, ”Under your stewardship since 2014 and subsequently that of Shri Rahul Gandhi, the INC has lost two Lok Sabha elections in a humiliating manner. It has lost 39 out of the 49 assembly elections held between 2014 and 2022.”
The next party chief will have to immediately deal with Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, both States that have seen high profile desertions from the Congress. Important States like Karnataka go to polls next year, before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
Revival in the States
Poor electoral performance is a direct fallout of the party’s organisation shrinking, and its absolute marginalisation, especially in Hindi belt States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, among others. The combined Lok Sabha strength of States like Bihar, U.P., Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Odisha and Delhi is 302, and the Congress is positioned either as a third or fourth player in most of these States. Except Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where the party has seen some revival in the past five years, its strength in its traditional strongholds like northeast India has considerably weakened. In most of these States, the party is struggling to provide inspiring leadership.
With a majoritarian Hindutva ideology taking centrestage in politics, the Congress has to clear the confusion among its workers and cadres over its political messaging on whether the party will pursue a hardcore secular ideology or be ambivalent towards ‘soft’ Hindutva.