New Delhi: Hectic arrangements were in progress at the Congress headquarters for Wednesday’s ceremony where party president Sonia Gandhi will hand over the baton to her successor, Mallikarjun Kharge, the first non-Gandhi to head the outfit in 24 years.
Mr. Kharge defeated Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor in a direct contest for the top post in the grand old party after the Gandhis opted out of the race. Security staff and workers made last-minute arrangements in the AICC headquarters yards where a tent was being put up and in the Congress president’s office room.
Chairman of the central election authority of the Congress Madhusudan Mistry will officially surrender the election certificate to Kharge at the function, which will also see the presence of outgoing chief Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
Mr. Kharge takes charge of the party at a time when it faces an intense challenge from a formidable BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi which has ousted the Congress from many states. For Mr. Kharge, who has served as a leader of the opposition in the Karnataka Assembly, leader of Congress in Lok Sabha, and later head of the opposition in Rajya Sabha, the ongoing assignment comes at a time when the party is at a historic low, electorally.
With the Congress currently remaining in power in only two states — Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — on its own and partnership as a junior partner in Jharkhand, Mr. Kharge’s first challenge is to bring the party to control in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, which go to polls in the next few weeks.
Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh are on November 12 however the dates for Gujarat are yet to be announced. Later in 2023, Mr. Kharge will confront the difficult task of leading the Congress in nine assembly elections that are due including in his home state of Karnataka where he was an MLA for nine terms.
Mr. 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, Mr. Kharge has also served as a state minister and a Lok Sabha MP from Gulbarga (2009 and 2014).
The old warhorse is notable for not losing an election barring the 2019 Lok Sabha poll from Gulbarga. It was after that loss that Sonia Gandhi brought Mr. Kharge to the Rajya Sabha and in February 2021 made him the leader of the opposition.
Mr. Kharge likewise faces the challenge of restoring the Congress’ supremacy in the opposition space, executing 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 a candidate of the Gandhi and would seek their approval in all decisions. The last non-Gandhi Congress president was Sitaram Kesri, who was casually removed in 1998 just after two years into his five-year term.
A leader with more than 50 years of involvement in politics, Mr. Kharge is also the second All India Congress Committee (AICC) president from Karnataka after S Nijalingappa and also the second Dalit leader after Jagjivan Ram to hold the post.
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