NEW DELHI: Hectic preparations were underway at the Congress headquarters for Wednesday’s ceremony where party president Sonia Gandhi will hand over the baton to her successor, Mallikarjun Kharge, the first non-Gandhi to head the outfit in 24 years.
Kharge defeated Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor in a direct contest for the top post in the grand old party after the Gandhis opted out of the race.
Security personnel and workers made last-minute arrangements on the AICC headquarters lawns where a tent was being put up and in the Congress president’s office room.
Chairman of the central election authority of the Congress Madhusudan Mistry will formally hand over the election certificate to Kharge at the function, which will also see the presence of outgoing chief Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
Kharge, 80, takes charge of the party at a time when it faces a tough challenge from a formidable BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi which has ousted the Congress from many states.
For Kharge, who has served as a leader of the opposition in the Karnataka Assembly, leader of Congress in Lok Sabha and later leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha, the current assignment comes at a time when the party is at a historic low, electorally.
With the Congress now remaining in power in only two states — Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — on its own and in partnership as a junior partner in Jharkhand, Kharge’s first challenge is to bring the party to power in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, which go to polls in the next few weeks.
Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh are on November 12 but the dates for Gujarat are yet to be announced.
Later in 2023, Kharge will face the onerous task of leading the Congress in nine assembly elections that are due including in his home state of Karnataka where he was an MLA for nine terms.
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.
Beginning his career as chief of the Gulbarga city council, Kharge has also served as a state minister and a Lok Sabha MP from Gulbarga (2009 and 2014).
The old warhorse is well known for not losing an election barring the 2019 Lok Sabha poll from Gulbarga.
It was after that loss that Sonia Gandhi brought Kharge to the Rajya Sabha and in February 2021 made him the leader of the opposition.
Kharge also faces the challenge of restoring the Congress’ primacy in the opposition space, implementing radical reforms the party pledged at the mid-May Chintan Shivir in Udaipur and maintaining his independence in the face of insinuations that he is a candidate of the Gandhi and would seek their approval in all decisions.
The last non-Gandhi Congress president was Sitaram Kesri, who was unceremoniously removed in 1998 just after two years into his five-year term.
A leader with more than 50 years of experience in politics, Kharge is also the second All India Congress Committee (AICC) president from Karnataka after S Nijalingappa and also the second Dalit leader after Jagjivan Ram to hold the post.