The credit goes to Rahul Gandhi for forcing the Congress to have a contest for the top post, now between Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor. A few days earlier, it had looked like the contest would be between Ashok Gehlot and Mr. Tharoor. This rare event is being watched keenly by the friends and foes of the Congress.
The trouble with the Congress party is the inbreeding that only produces stunted and disfigured shoots. Congress workers deify the Gandhi family, but they detest the stranglehold of a few dozen families that chokes all their avenues of upward mobility. As Mr. Gandhi has said, the Congress needs to have many people who are in to go out, and get many who are out to come in.
A Tharoor versus Gehlot contest would have done the Congress party a world of good. Mr. Gehlot is affable and ruthless at the same time. He understands the average worker, a trait few have in the Congress. A Backward Caste face, and a quintessential organisation man, Mr. Gehlot would have infused new energy and momentum for the party, particularly in the Hindi heartland where it continues to sink. What he lacks in terms of charisma is more than compensated for by hard work, perseverance and sheer native intelligence, another trait that few in the party’s top apparatus have now. Mr. Gehlot, as president would have energised the cadre and attracted newer people into it from the BJP. For Mr. Gehlot, being an insider would have been an advantage.
Mr. Kharge, is an insider too — with all its baggage but none of its benefits. He’s soft and polite, but at 80, he is past his prime. He is a Dalit, but he himself would not be expecting a surge of Dalit support for the party because of him. The Congress tried to sell its accidental Chief Minister in Punjab Charanjit Singh Channi’s Dalit identity in the election early this year, but few bought it. While the BJP is retiring leaders at 75 to promote younger, dynamic faces that appeal to newer social frontiers, the Congress is held captive by the tired and the tiring. Mr. Kharge does not move the needle for the Congress. As president, he is unlikely to move or move anything.
It’s Mr. Tharoor who speaks to a constituency that is not with the Congress now. The Indian middle class is upset with the BJP but it does not look at the Congress as a viable alternative. Mr. Tharoor is not a native Congressman — as some of his critics now point out. Far from being a disadvantage, the party could turn this to its advantage. He represents merit, which the Congress is accused of overlooking. He represents ambition, aspiration, and dynamism, which the middle class thinks the party lacks. His lateral entry into politics was not through the Rajya Sabha. Mr. Tharoor has been tested thrice in Thiruvananthapuram, which is by no means an easy Lok Sabha constituency for the Congress. He came out with flying colours. He not only nurtured the constituency well, but also became one of the most sought-after campaigners across Kerala in last year’s Assembly election.
More than anything else, the Congress needs to tell and sell a story to the Indian voters. Mr. Tharoor does that well, and he echoes Mr. Gandhi’s views on social, economic and political issues. Back in 2009, during his first election, Mr. Tharoor was teased for his weak Malayalam by his opponents. “I know enough Malayalam to understand what you tell me. And I know better English and Hindi than my critics to raise those issues in parliament,” he told voters in his winning pitch. Now, he knows enough about the Congress but is not caught in its intrigues; and he knows better than most others how to represent the Congress before the expanding Indian middle class. He’s what the Congress needs but, alas, won’t get.