India’s opposition missed a chance to reset — and take the fight to Modi

Newly elected Indian National Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge speaks in New Delhi on Oct. 26. (Rajat Gupta/Shutterstock)
Newly elected Indian National Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge speaks in New Delhi on Oct. 26. (Rajat Gupta/Shutterstock)

In nearly 137 years, India’s Congress Party — the main, albeit severely diminished, opposition to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — has held only six internal elections. This month, in its first such contest in more than two decades, it missed a crucial opportunity to reset.

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi rose to power in 2014, the Congress Party has been crushed under the wheels of the BJP juggernaut. It went from having 206 seats in Parliament in 2009 to 52 seats a decade later, and it leads governments in just two of the country’s 28 states. The party that once led the fight for the country’s independence is struggling for relevance. And a leadership race that could have signaled renewal has ended up only reaffirming the stale status quo.

On paper, the results of the contest were a break from the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi family, descendants of India’s first prime minister who have steered the fortunes of Congress for decades. But in fact, the election only reconfirmed the party’s reputation as an entrenched family firm — one gravely out of sync with the aspirations of a fast-changing India. Instead of embracing disruption and a new storyline, members elected Mallikarjun Kharge, an 80-year-old party veteran and Gandhi loyalist, as the new chief.

Kharge won out over the media-savvy, erudite former diplomat Shashi Tharoor. Kharge’s supporters emphasize his string of parliamentary victories and symbolism as a Dalit politician, arguing that support for Tharoor is concentrated among India’s Anglicized elite. It’s true that Kharge has an inspiring personal story, rising from poverty and becoming the first in his family to attend college.

Yet this debate is not about individual critiques of Kharge — or a preference for clipped English accents and degrees from foreign universities. Quite simply, Kharge lacks the charisma needed for a political era of populism, personality and polarization. With his repeated assertions that he will seek guidance from the Gandhis, he only confirms the perception that he is a proxy candidate. By contrast, Tharoor told me that “a self-respecting [Congress] president would essentially want to exercise his own authority … there is no provision in the constitution of the party for the president to report to anyone else”.

Kharge would not have even run for party president if the Gandhi family had not wished it. His last-minute entry into the race was a dead giveaway, following an unexpected rebellion by the Gandhis’ preferred candidate that made them double down on a “safe” alternative. Kharge is effectively a trusted placeholder for the family, keeping the seat warm while Rahul Gandhi, its 52-year-old scion, seeks personal reinvention.

Admittedly, Rahul Gandhi is not sitting idly by: He is undertaking an ambitious journey on foot across India. His “Bharat Jodo Yatra” (Journey to Unify India) has helped showcase an amiable, accessible side to the politician, who for much of his career has been stilted among people. Congress — belatedly learning the power of images in an age of viral videos and WhatsApp forwards — has found success with photos of Gandhi delivering speeches while drenched in rain, embracing elderly people and playfully interacting with children. These engagements have made Gandhi look better than he has in years.

Without election wins, however, this remains a largely personal pilgrimage. The pan-India journey omits the states of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, where state elections are scheduled for this year. Perhaps the party does not want Gandhi linked in any way to electoral defeats — but it is counterintuitive for a politician to deliberately avoid connecting a mass contact program to electoral success.

Congress loyalists say the media is not as critical of the BJP, where all internal decision-making is by the prime minister or his all-powerful lieutenant Amit Shah. Why is there not as much focus on (relatively) low-key BJP President J.P. Nadda? The answer is simple: There is no ambiguity in the BJP; Modi is both the message and the mascot. In Congress, on the other hand, Rahul Gandhi neither openly pursues power, nor lets go of it.

So, without a clear change in personality, what will the Congress bring to counter Modi in the next general election, which must be held by May 2024? The BJP’s emphasis on Hindu identity has pushed opposition parties — not just Congress, but also the newer Aam Aadmi Party and others — to similarly embrace religious symbols. Meanwhile, the BJP’s economic policy is not very different from Congress’s. In fact, the ruling party has co-opted Congress’s classic welfarism with strategic microeconomics. Free rations, direct cash transfers, toilets and housing have been welded with aggressive nationalism, caste coalitions — and, above all, the cult of Modi.

The Congress Party faces an existential test for its future. It needs a person, a plan and a compelling story to put up a fight on the electoral battlefield. The past few weeks show it has a long way to go on all three fronts.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning broadcast journalist and anchor with more than two decades of reporting experience. She is founder-editor of Mojo Story, a multi-media digital platform, and the author of, most recently, “To Hell and Back: Humans of Covid”. Dutt is based in Delhi.

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