India’s oldest political party, the Congress, has elected a political leader outside the fold of the powerful Gandhi dynasty for the first time in two decades.
Mallikarjun Kharge was elected as the new opposition party chairman on Wednesday and became just the third Dalit leader to lead the 138-year-old party that has ruled the country for most of its independence years.
He won the internal party elections in a landslide vote against his colleague and MP Shashi Tharoor.
Mr. Kharge won by 7,897 votes against 1,072 votes for Mr. Tharoor, obtaining eight times more votes than the former UN diplomat.
It is the first time in 24 years that India’s main national opposition party – which has ruled the country for more than 60 years – will have a non-Gandhi president.
The move is seen as a desperate attempt to revive the big old party’s electoral fortunes ahead of the 2024 general election.
Mr Tharoor pointed to “extremely serious irregularities” in the electoral process, but praised Mr Kharge.
“I believe the renaissance of our party really started today,” Mr Tharoor said.
“It is a great honor and a huge responsibility to be the Chairman of @INCIndia and I wish @Kharge ji every success in this task. It was a privilege to have received the support of over a thousand colleagues and to carry the hopes and aspirations of so many Congress supporters across India,” Tharoor tweeted.
Mr Kharge will replace the party’s acting chair Sonia Gandhi, the widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who served as president for 19 years.
The Congress party has long touted its secular credentials in contrast to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalism.
The Gandhi family, which led the party for most of its existence in independent India, has been compared to the Kennedy family in the United States for suffering personal tragedies and maintaining an uneasy balance of power.
But the party has been on life support since being routed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP in 2014.
Rahul Gandhi, Mrs Gandhi’s son, was elected chairman of the unopposed party in 2017 but resigned following the beating the party received for its defeat in the 2019 national elections and other key state elections .
Congress has appointed three of India’s 15 prime ministers since independence, beginning with freedom fighter and independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1947.
Two of them – Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and his father, Rajiv Gandhi – were murdered. The party ruled India for over 60 years after India gained independence from British colonialism in 1947.
Mr Kharge, 80, a politician from the southern state of Karnataka, was seen as a frontrunner and touted as the “official candidate” after being openly backed by other senior party officials.
He is a member of the Dalit community (formerly untouchable) and known as “solilada sardara”, an invincible warrior, within his circle.
He served as a Federal Minister under the previous government of Manmohan Singh and was given the portfolios of Railways and Labor.
He has been an elected MP for the southern state of Karnataka since February 2021, then leader of the opposition in parliament from October 2022.
Experts said the family and the party are at a pivotal moment amid the 2024 national elections which critics of the current dispensation say could lead to the BJP consolidating its power even further.
Mr. Kharge will face the increasingly difficult task of reviving the party’s electoral fortunes and showing that he is not a proxy president for the Gandhi family.
“At least it’s not someone from the family, but you can’t expect such a strong Gandhi family presence to go away – their presence will continue to be the focus,” Mahesh said. Rangarajan, professor at Ashoka University.
“The question is, can they reverse the trend? How will the party find its message? This is the real challenge,” Mr. Rangarajan added.
Speaking at a campaign event, Mr Kharge criticized that he would be “remotely controlled by the Gandhis”.
“I will listen to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi i, and it is my duty to continue the good work they have done. These are people who gave their lives to the party,” he said.
He later said that he might not consult the Gandhi family on every decision, but would seek suggestions from them.
Additional reports by agencies