New Delhi: The Congress on Wednesday elected Mallikarjun Kharge as its president, the first non-Gandhi to head the party in 24 years at a time the 137-year-old party is struggling to reverse its slide in the country’s electoral politics.
A staunch Gandhi family loyalist from Karnataka, the 80-year-old leader defeated Shashi Tharoor in an electoral contest by bagging nearly 84 per cent of votes in the party presidential election.
Kharge got 7,897 votes and Tharoor 1,072 votes, while 416 votes were declared invalid, Congress’ central election authority chairman Madhusudan Mistry said at a press conference at the AICC headquarters here.
Addressing a press conference after his victory Kharge said, “no one is big or small, all have to work together as ‘karyakartas’ to strengthen Congress…We have to fight together against fascist forces who are attacking democracy and Constitution.”
Kharge said he will formally take charge on October 26.
Though a late entrant in the Congress’ internal elections, held to choose Sonia Gandhi’s successor, Kharge’s victory was almost certain as he was considered a ‘family-approved’ candidate. 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.
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.
The upcoming assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat will be among the first challenges, Kharge will face as the party president.
Conceding his defeat, Tharoor congratulated Kharge and said the “democratic contest” has galvanised vibrancy at all levels and has prompted a healthy and constructive discussion on change, which will serve the party in good stead in the future.
Tharoor also claimed that the Congress’ revival has begun.
In a statement, Tharoor said the Nehru-Gandhi family has held, and will always hold, a special place in the hearts of Congress party members.
Outgoing Congress president Sonia Gandhi also visited Kharge at his residence here soon and congratulated him. She was accompanied by Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
In his congratulatory message, Rahul Gandhi said Kharge represents a “democratic vision” of India.
“The Congress President represents a democratic vision of India. His vast experience and ideological commitment will serve the party well as he takes on this historic responsibility,” Gandhi said on Twitter.
A festive atmosphere prevailed at the Congress headquarters with party workers carrying flags and posters, which prominently carried the pictures of Rahul Gandhi, moved around joyously beating drums.
There was also a sizeable crowd of party supporters in anticipation of the announcement of the organisation’s next helmsman.
Some old-timers recalled that the crowd, including big media presence, and overall festive atmosphere were a reminder of the scenes during poll wins, something which has been far and few between for the party in recent years.
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.
Kharge was elected MLA for nine times in a row, seeing a steady rise in his career graph from humble beginnings as a union leader in his home district of Gulbarga (renamed as Kalaburagi).
He joined the party in 1969 and went on to become President of the Gulbarga City Congress Committee. PTI