Shashi Tharoor’s ‘quixotic quest for what was not to be’ brings to relief semblance of inner party democracy in GOP

Mapanna Mallikarjun Kharge’s tenure as the 98th president of the Indian National Congress stares at challenges for which he cannot fall back on precedents. He comes in at a time when the Grand Old Party is facing pincer existential attacks—from within and outside. Apart from BJP, which has usurped Congress’ niche as India’s party of governance at the national level, GOP also faces threats from regional parties who no longer deem Congress to be the Big Brother in the anti-BJP line up. (Significantly, no regional party leader extended the courtesy of greeting Kharge on his win; the sole congratulatory message outside Congress came from a tweet by Narendra Modi, who wished him a “fruitful tenure”.) The two-decade plus presidency of the party held by the Nehru-Gandhi family saw Congress crumble to a situation somewhat alike the last days of the Mughal Empire. The Persian epithet for the depleted rule of the 17th Mughal, Shah Alam (1760-1802), “Sultanat-e-Shah Alam; Az Dilli te Palam” (the rule of Shah Alam is restricted between Delhi and Palam) perhaps symbolised this period of GOP history—ironically, Congress has yielded space to Aam Aadmi Party in National Capital Territory Delhi while New Delhi is entrenched with BJP.
Speaking at the release of a book by veteran Congressperson Mohsina Kidwai a day after his defeat, Shashi Tharoor described his attempt as a “quixotic quest for what was not to be”. The significant numbers polled by him, which surpassed the tally of Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot (1997) Jitendra Prasada (1999), indicated that in spite of the perception that Kharge was the “official candidate”, a number of collegium voters, who almost equalled the total number of AICC members (1,100), had supported his agenda for “change”. Kharge will have to address the “revolt” in Rajasthan—which saw Ashok Gehlot refuse to step down as CM to accept the gracious offer by the Nehru-Gandhi family to be the “official “candidate for presidency. Not only did Gehlot stir a revolt in Jaipur—he went a step further by naming Kharge as the candidate, stymied Digvijay Singh and took the “family” by surprise. The Nehru Gandhis are said to have been upset, but had little choice and preferred silence. Shashi Tharoor, who had met Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi prior to throwing his hat into the ring, repeatedly cited the family’s neutrality. But neither affirmation nor denial on this score let the popular perception, that Kharge was the “official” choice, prevail. With the sole exception of Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh no other PCC president extended to Tharoor any courtesy and went overboard to display support for Kharge. Post result, the Tharoor camp gave a written complaint to Madhusudan Mistry, who headed the election panel, alleging lack of “level playing field”. Mistry pooh-poohed the plaint and chided Tharoor for “double speak”. In fairness of things, perhaps Misrty could have also questioned Gehlot’s statement, which clearly violated the code that no office bearer of the party would openly support a candidate. (Besides the Jaipur revolt, another incident which surprised the Nehru Gandhis was that when Samajwadi stalwart Mulayam Singh Yadav died, the party nominated Kamal Nath and Bhupesh Baghel to represent it at the funeral in Saifai—Ashok Gehlot went there on his own, without Congress mandate.) Apart from Rajasthan, maintaining discipline in the only other state with Congress rule, Chhattisgarh, too will be a challenge. Like Sachin Pilot in Jaipur, T.S. Singhdeo is awaiting his turn in Raipur. (Both Pilot and Singhdeo had been promised elevation by the Nehru-Gandhis.) Reining in pro-changers to his agenda of continuity will be a major task before Kharge.
This is the second time that a Kannadiga has been elected Congress president (CP)—or perhaps the third, if the tenure of Devraj Urs as head of a breakaway Congress faction in 1979 is also counted. The first was S. Nijalingappa, in 1968. He came in at a time when Congress had been reduced to a wafer-thin majority in the Lok Sabha in 1967 and wiped out of power in the North—it was said one could travel on the GT Road from Amritsar to Calcutta without encountering a Congress state government. Nijalingappa consolidated the party. He refused to yield to PM Indira Gandhi and this led to the 1969 split, which ushered in the phase of Nehru-Gandhi family dominance in the GOP. Most Congresspersons today may not be able to recall that phase, but Kharge can, as he began his career as a City Congress president in 1969. He may like to take a leaf or two out of the book of Nijalingappa. His major challenge will be to handle the three Nehru Gandhis, who so far imposed a Troika rule in the party. Kharge sided with Indira Gandhi in 1969 and has been a family loyalist throughout. Names of two of his children, Priyank and Priyadarshini, also underscore his awe for the family.
This was the sixth election for the post of CP in the 137-year-old party. Since 1919, when Mahatma Gandhi emerged as the mass leader of India, Congress has had a “high command”. Gandhi was the high command from 1919 till his assassination in 1948. When Subhas Bose defied Gandhi and defeated his nominee, Bhogaraju Pattabhi Sitaramayya, in 1939, the Congress Working Committee refused to cooperate with Bose and the elected CP (then referred to as Rashtrapati) quit the party to form Forward Bloc and chose his own path for India’s freedom. (Sitaramayya became CP in 1948-49.) 1950 saw the second contest, between J.B. Kripalani, who had PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s support and right-wing candidate Purushottam Das Tandon, who won. Tandon and Nehru, both from Allahabad, had been bitter rivals. Then again, CWC stymied CP and Tandon quit—being replaced by Nehru. (By some quirk of history, both Nehru and Tandon passed away on the same day: 27 May 1964.) Defeat of Congress (I) in 1977 saw the resignation of D.K. Barooah—third CP poll ensued. K. Brahmananda Reddi, covertly backed by Indira Gandhi, defeated Siddhartha Shankar Ray. Reddi asserted himself and Indira Gandhi chose to break away yet again and launched her own party in January 1978. The next two elections were in 1997, when Sitaram Kesari defeated Pawar and Pilot (Kesari was later humiliated, locked up in a toilet, while CWC elected Sonia Gandhi president in 1998.) In 2000, Sonia Gandhi routed Jitendra Prasada, who could not even poll three-figure votes.
Will Kharge be able to live up to his name in Karnataka, “Sallilade Sardara”—the undefeated leader (reflecting his nine Assembly and two Lok Sabha wins)? He stands on a burning deck.