Mallikarjun Kharge: India’s oldest political party chooses non-Gandhi, Dalit chief for first time in 24 years

Kharge is Congress’s third Dalit leader to head country’s grand old party

Shweta Sharma
Wednesday 19 October 2022 13:50 BST
India's Congress party newly appointed president Mallikarjun Kharge arrives to address a press conference in New Delhi
India's Congress party newly appointed president Mallikarjun Kharge arrives to address a press conference in New Delhi (AFP via Getty Images)

India’s oldest political party, the Congress, has elected a political leader outside the fold of the powerful Gandhi dynasty for the first time in two decades.

Mallikarjun Kharge was elected the new president of the opposition party on Wednesday and has become only the third Dalit leader to lead the 138-year-old party that has led the country for most of its independent years.

He won the internal party election in a landslide vote against his colleague and lawmaker Shashi Tharoor.

Mr Kharge won by 7,897 votes against Mr Tharoor’s 1,072 votes, securing eight times more votes than the former UN diplomat.

This is the first time in 24 years that India’s main national opposition party – which governed the country for more than 60 years – will have a non-Gandhi president.

The decision is an attempt seen as a desperate bid to revive the grand old party’s electoral fortunes ahead of the 2024 general polls.

Mr Tharoor flagged “extremely serious irregularities” in the election process, but congratulated Mr Kharge.

“I believe the revival of our party has truly begun today,” Mr Tharoor said.

“It is a great honour & a huge responsibility to be President of @INCIndia & I wish @Kharge ji all success in that task. It was a privilege to have received the support of over a thousand colleagues, & to carry the hopes & aspirations of so many well-wishers of Congress across India,” tweeted Mr Tharoor.

Mr Kharge will replace the interim president of the party, Sonia Gandhi, the widow of late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who served as president for 19 years.

The Congress party has long touted its secular credentials in contrast to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalism.

The Gandhi family that has run the party for most of its existence in independent India, has been compared to the Kennedy family in the US for suffering personal tragedies and maintaining a tough power-balancing act.

Mallikarjun Kharge will replace Sonia Gandhi who served as the president for 19 years
Mallikarjun Kharge will replace Sonia Gandhi who served as the president for 19 years (REUTERS)

But the party has been on life support ever since it was routed by prime minister Narendra Modi and his BJP in 2014.

Rahul Gandhi, Ms Gandhi’s son, was elected party president unopposed in 2017 but had resigned over the drubbing the party received for its defeat in the 2019 national elections and other key state elections.

The Congress gave three of India’s 15 prime ministers since independence, starting with the freedom fighter and first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1947.

Two of them — Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and father, Rajiv Gandhi — were assassinated. The party governed India for more than 60 years after India gained independence from British colonialism in 1947.

Mr Kharge, 80, a politician from the southern state of Karnataka, was seen as a frontrunner and touted to be the “official candidate” after being openly supported by fellow senior partymen.

He is a member of the Dalit (formerly untouchable) community and known as “solilada sardara”, a warrior who cannot be defeated, within his circle.

He has served as a federal minister under the previous Manmohan Singh government and was assigned the railways and labour portfolios.

He has served as an elected lawmaker from the southern Karnataka state since February 2021 and then leader of the opposition in the parliament from October 2022.

Experts have said the family and the party are at a pivotal moment amid the 2024 national elections that critics of the current dispensation have said could lead to the BJP consolidating its power even further.

Mr Kharge will face the increasingly tough task of reviving the party’s electoral fortunes and show that he is not a proxy president for the Gandhi family.

“At least it’s not someone from the family, but you can’t expect such a strong presence of the Gandhi family to just go away – their presence will continue to be at the centre,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a professor at Ashoka University.

“The question is can they turn the tide? How will the party rediscover its message? That is the real challenge,” Mr Rangarajan added.

Speaking during a campaign event, Mr Kharge addressed criticism that he will be “remote-controlled by the Gandhis”.

“I will listen to Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi ji, and it is my duty to carry forward the good work they have done. These are the people who have given their lives to the party,” he said.

He later said he may not consult the Gandhi family for every decision but will seek suggestions from them.

Additional reporting by agencies

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