On paper, it looks like an overdue transfer of power. India’s principal opposition party, after an internal election contest between two members of Parliament, has elected a new president; and, for the first time in over two decades, the party will not be led by a member of the Gandhi family. The new president may not be the most inspiring of figures — Mallikarjun Kharge is 80 years old and has had a largely forgettable tenure as leader of the opposition in both houses of Parliament — but at least nobody can argue he is inexperienced.
Critics have been clamoring for such a shift for years, arguing that only fresh leadership could rejuvenate the storied Indian National Congress party and, with it, the liberal and secular opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The sad reality, however, is that this change at the top likely won’t improve the Congress’s national prospects — and it’s not clear anything can.
Like so much about the party, the apparent transfer of power is all good intentions and very little substance. Kharge was seen as the favorite of the outgoing president, Sonia Gandhi, and her son Rahul. He thus won almost eight times as many votes as his competitor, the former UN bureaucrat and writer Shashi Tharoor.
That doesn’t mean the Gandhis weren’t sincere about wanting to inject fresh blood into the party leadership. Internal elections have been an obsession of Rahul’s for years. As leader of the “youth Congress” a decade ago, he insisted on US-style primaries for leadership positions. But then, as now, the party rank and file supported the candidates who appeared closest to the powers that be.
In any case, nobody expects the elderly new president to knock the Gandhi heir off the front pages. The presidential election has been eclipsed by news about the younger Gandhi’s ongoing march across the length of India. Our politics has a long tradition of “yatras,” or journeys — sometimes by rail, the way Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi did it, sometimes by bus, and often on foot, as Rahul intends. These yatras always have some noble end in mind; the younger Gandhi says he wants to help knit a divided country together again.
Whatever the purpose, there’s limited space in India’s government-friendly press for news about the Congress in the first place and the march at least has yielded a few Instagrammable moments, especially of Rahul addressing an enthusiastic crowd in the pouring rain.
But the real problem lies elsewhere. You can’t expect internal elections to rejuvenate a party when the candidates mostly agree on real policy. The Congress is not going to discover a new narrative through bland popularity contests where the stakes are patronage and not policies.
It’s time to admit the Congress’s problem is not, in fact, the Gandhis. If anything, they hold together a party that would otherwise split into multiple factions — as, indeed, the Congress did in the 1990s, after Rahul’s father was assassinated and before his mother picked up the party’s pieces.
The bigger issue is that nobody in India wants to buy what Rahul and others in the party are so earnestly selling: a return to the muddled moderation of the past. The party’s backroom deals and clumsy attempts at social inclusion have no place in an India enamored of larger-than-life leaders such as Modi.
Rahul Gandhi once described the Congress as India’s “default operating system.” That role has now been usurped by Modi’s BJP. India’s only real opposition lies in the states. Modi’s main challengers are populist regional leaders such as Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee or maverick middle-class messiahs such as Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
Indeed, it is noteworthy that one of the Congress’ most popular mass leaders, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, flatly refused to run for the party’s presidency even when the Gandhis tried to push him into it. The BJP’s overwhelming “one India” narrative leaves no space in the national imagination for any alternative centralizing force. The smartest politicians in the opposition know that.
As Kharge will soon discover, the presidency of a national party in the Modi era is a poisoned chalice. To paraphrase Julius Caesar, any politician in India today would rather be first in their state than second in New Delhi.