Kharge is new Congress president


New Delhi: Amidst the uphill task of reversing its electoral slide, the Congress on Wednesday elected 'loyalist' Mallikarjun Kharge as its new president, the first non-Gandhi to head the 137-year-old party in 24 years and succeed long-time chief Sonia Gandhi.

A Dalit from Karnataka, 80-year-old Kharge trounced his 66-year-old rival, Shashi Tharoor, in a historic election seeking to steer the beleaguered party out of its current crisis. He bagged over 84 percent of the votes in the presidential election.

He will formally take over on October 26.

Kharge polled 7897 Pradesh Congress Committee delegate votes out of 9385, while Tharoor bagged 1072, Chairman of the Congress Party's Central Election Authority Madhusudan Mistry said, adding 416 votes were invalid.

In his first statement after winning the election, Kharge vouched to fight for the "restoration of democracy and end of dictatorship".

A host of leaders across the political spectrum congratulated Kharge for his election.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted Kharge and wished him a fruitful tenure.

"My best wishes to Shri Mallikarjun Kharge Ji for his new responsibility as President of @INCIndia. May he have a fruitful tenure ahead," Modi tweeted.

Setting aside apprehensions of unfairness and absence of a level playing field in the election after Tharoor's team filed a complaint, expressing concern over "irregularities" in polls in Uttar Pradesh, Mistry said the complaint was "of a general nature and had no basis."

Noting that the complaint should not have been made public, Mistry said the UP poll returning officer of the party had briefed the agents of Tharoor and they were satisfied.

Conceding defeat, Tharoor congratulated Kharge and also thanked outgoing president Sonia Gandhi for her leadership, hoping she would continue to guide the party.

Later, Tharoor met Kharge at his residence and promised to work together for the revival of the party.

Asserting that he was never a candidate of dissent, but for change, Tharoor said this election has energised the party to take on the challenge posed by the BJP and exuded confidence that the party will display its strength.

Sonia Gandhi, accompanied by AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra paid a personal visit to Kharge and congratulated the veteran leader on his election. The two spent nearly an hour at Kharge's Rajaji Marg residence here and are learnt to have discussed the challenges the party faced. Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot was also present during the meeting.

For Kharge, who has served as a leader of the opposition in the Karnataka Assembly, leader of Congress in Lok Sabha and later leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha, the current assignment comes at a time when the party is at a historic low, electorally.

The Congress is in power in just two states on its own --Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh-- and faces a very aggressive incumbent BJP in election-bound Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat a few weeks from now, which will be Kharge's first challenge.

Later in 2023, Kharge will face the onerous task of leading the Congress in nine assembly elections that are due including in his own home state of Karnataka where he was an MLA for nine terms, though he was never chief minister of the state.

Kharge's election also comes at a time the party is reeling under internal rumblings and high-profile exits after a series of electoral debacles and has been reduced to a shadow of its former formidable self.

Beginning his career as chief of the Gulbarga city council, Kharge has also served as a state minister and a Lok Sabha MP from Gulbarga (2009 and 2014).

The old warhorse is well known for not losing an election barring the 2019 LS poll from Gulbarga.

It was after that loss that Sonia Gandhi brought Kharge to the Rajya Sabha and in February 2021 made him the leader of the opposition.

Kharge also faces the challenge of restoring the Congress' primacy in the opposition space, implementing radical reforms the party pledged at the mid-May Chintan Shivir in Udaipur and maintaining his independence in the face of insinuations that he is an 'establishment' candidate and would seek the approval of Gandhis in all decisions.

Though a late entrant in the Congress' internal elections, he was a clear favourite from the beginning.

The last non-Gandhi Congress president was Sitaram Kesri, who was unceremoniously removed in 1998 just after two years into his five-year term.

While former Congress president Rahul Gandhi said the president was the "supreme authority" and would decide on the way forward for the party, it will be a challenge for Kharge to send a clear message that he is the one in the driving seat and not a proxy of the Gandhis.

After his victory, Kharge said the Congress had set a shining example of democracy by conducting a successful internal election at a time when "democracy was in danger."

He appealed to everyone to join Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra terming "backbreaking inflation, rising unemployment, growing inequities and communalism being spread by the government" as top problems confronting India.

Addressing a press conference, Kharge also said that no one in the party is big or small and he will work as a true Congress soldier to strengthen the organisation.

Kharge said for him every "Congress worker is equal and all have to work together to fight the fascist forces threatening democracy and the Constitution" and attacked those "wearing the garb of communalism".

All Congress workers feel that the country cannot be sacrificed for a "tanashah" and "we have to together fight these 'vinaashkari' (destructive) forces, he said.

There was a festive atmosphere at the Congress headquarters here, with party workers holding Congress flags and posters and dancing to the beats of the drums.

A leader with more than 50 years of experience in politics, Kharge is also the second AICC President from Karnataka after S Nijalingappa and also the second Dalit leader after Jagjivan Ram to hold the post.

Former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda and his son and former chief minister H D Kumaraswamy, besides a number of chief ministers including Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel sent their best wishes to Kharge.

Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar also extended his best wishes to him for a successful and inspiring tenure and said he was "looking forward to working together with him to strengthen the united opposition". PTI

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