Mallikarjun Kharge elected leader of India's Congress Party

Parliamentarian and Gandhi loyalist wins with nearly 8,000 votes

Shashi Tharoor (L) and Mallikarjun Kharge (R) celebrate after the latter won the Indian Congress Party leadership election. EPA
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Veteran politician Mallikarjun Kharge has been elected as the first leader of India’s Congress Party — its first non-Gandhi head in more than two decades.

At least 9,500 members of the State Congress Committees, including the electoral college, voted on Monday to choose between party leaders Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor.

Mr Kharge, 80, a parliamentarian from the southern Karnataka state, won with nearly 8,000 votes while Mr Tharoor, 66, polled slightly more than 1,000, Madhusudan Mistry, the chairman of the party’s Central Election Authority, said on Wednesday.

Party workers distributed sweets and set off firecrackers at the headquarters in capital Delhi to celebrate the victory.

Born into a poor Dalit family, formerly known as untouchables, Mr Kharge started as a student leader and joined the party in 1969. He rose swiftly through the ranks to become leader of the party, the oldest in India.

The centre-left party had been led by the Gandhi family for nearly 25 years, drawing allegations from political rivals who have accused it of ignoring democratic process.

Supporters of Mr Tharoor had earlier alleged irregularities in the polling process but the parliamentarian, who was first to declare his intention to run in the election, dismissed such claims and congratulated Mr Khrage on his victory.

“This election was meant to strengthen the INC and not to divide … it is a great honour & a huge responsibility to be President of INC India and I wish Kharge ji all success in that task,” Mr Tharoor tweeted, as he conceded defeat.

It is the sixth time in the history of the Congress Party that an electoral contest has been held to choose its leader.

The 137-year-old party has produced three prime ministers and ruled India for more than half the time since the country gained independence from Britain in 1947.

Former leaders include ex-prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and grandson Rajiv Gandhi — both also former prime ministers of India.

After Gandhi’s assassination, his widow Sonia Gandhi became the president in 1998 and helped the party to revive its electoral fortunes, leading it to back-to-back national election triumphs in 2004 and 2009.

She stepped down as party leader in 2017 in the run-up to the 2019 general election and handed the baton to her son, Rahul, but returned as interim chief in 2019 after the electoral drubbing that year.

Mr Gandhi stepped down from the post and has since firmly refused to return as party president, despite pressure from a section of Congress leaders.

He is currently leading a foot march to connect with Indians across the country before the 2024 general election.

But experts are sceptical of whether the new president can mobilise voter support and revive the party's electoral fortunes, which have been in decline in recent years after back-to-back defeats to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Many critics and political rivals have blamed weak leadership and “nepotism” for the crushing electoral defeats.

Mr Modi has blasted the Gandhis for running the party as a “family enterprise”, and particularly Mr Rahul for lacking political acumen.

The 52-year-old Congress leader, known as the “reluctant politician”, stepped down from the party president’s post after the 2019 defeat, leaving his mother to take over as interim leader.

Arathi Jerath, a political analyst in Delhi, says the future of the party will depend on whether Mr Rahul and his sister Priyanka adopt a hands-off approach and allow the new president to function independently and adopt an inclusive approach to infuse fresh enthusiasm within the ranks.

Ms Jerath told The National he would find it difficult at this stage in his political career to revive party fortunes.

“However, he can play the role of a nightwatchman and with the help of the Gandhis, put in place mechanisms to make the party more democratic and inclusive,” she said.

“Ultimately it boils down to the Gandhis and whether they are genuinely interested in strengthening the organisation and whether they have a vision for a new Congress in which the family does not dominate and allows strong local leaders to emerge."

Updated: October 19, 2022, 12:00 PM