The Congress has attempted to address the most critical question about its leadership by welcoming, for the first time in 24 years, a non-Gandhi as the party president. Whether the 80-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge will be the principal opposition party’s prime ministerial candidate in the 2024 general elections is still in the realm of speculation. However, his election has the potential to significantly alter the party’s dispensation at the top, and also has a bearing on the southern States especially in Karnataka and Kerala where the Congress still remains politically relevant. There is also a larger message in Kharge’s election about his social profile as a Dalit, grassroots leader.

The buzz about his rival and Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor, who conducted an energetic campaign complete with a manifesto promising change and decentralisation in the Congress, was effectively doused by the results with him securing just about 1,072 votes and Kharge winning 7,897 of the total 9,385 votes polled. For all the excitement about Tharoor’s candidature, which the Gandhis seemingly squashed by rallying behind Kharge, the fact remains that he is vulnerable to criticism and formal action over a controversy regarding the auction process in the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2010. The Congress’s new president faces seemingly insurmountable organisational, tactical and ideological challenges. The party would need to fix these before finally deciding on who is to be its PM face. The first mammoth task that awaits Kharge is to arrest the Congress’s decades-old organisational decline that has contributed to the party’s vote share sliding to around 19 per cent in two consecutive general elections in 2014 and 2019 and dropping to either third or the fourth slot in 10 major States amounting to 59 per cent, i.e., 320 Lok Sabha seats.

Above all, the party needs to be clear about its economic vision. The party has lost its welfarism plank to the BJP, which has not just appropriated this model, but also embellished it with the direct cash transfer scheme under the PM-KISAN, free rations in the form of PM Garib Kalyan Yojana, free cooking gas through Ujjwala scheme, et al. The Congress is, for the moment, left with Rahul Gandhi’s anti-corporate rhetoric that suggests a shift away from its pro-reforms, growth-oriented position towards a policy dedicated to distributive justice and social security programmes such as the Nyay scheme. But all of this is just too woolly. With the intellectual capital available to the Congress, both in-house and in the academia, the party needs to come up with an economic blueprint that says where it is coming from — its position vis-a-vis its three-decades-long espousal of economic liberalisation, and reforms coupled with welfarism. A national party that stands in opposition to the formidable BJP — which has hit upon religious nationalism, welfarism and reforms as its winning formula — needs to carve out a clear alternative vision. Merely attacking the ruling regime will not work.

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