The real story in the election for Congress president is the 1,072 votes the unofficial candidate received. That he was unofficial was evident — no matter what the party claims — and while this was Shashi Tharoor (Mallikarjun Kharge was the winner and is the new Congress president), the names of the candidates are irrelevant. Given the nature of the contest, that holds true for their experience as well. After all, the election — the party made much of it — wasn’t really one. There were barely disguised attempts by the party to find a candidate who would represent the existing centre of gravity of power in the Congress, the Gandhi family. And once one was found, there were barely disguised attempts to ensure he won by a landslide.
So, while the Congress now has its first non-Gandhi chief in 24 years, this may not mean much in terms of the change that all commentators and even many inside the party have been calling for. Despite a veneer of neutrality, it was always clear that Mr Kharge was the Gandhis’ candidate, and it is very likely that they will hold sway over the party. That means continuity — of leadership (albeit not in name), strategies, and policies. It also means the radical change required to revive a party that has made a habit of losing elections at every level, and whose vote share in the national election has slipped to under 20% (a threshold for the party, across elections, according to many analysts), may not come about.
Which is why the real story is not the 7,897 votes the winner received, but the 1,072 ones the loser did — for it shows that despite the obvious nudging, and the not-so-obvious direction, 1,072 Congress members voted for change, with many of them perhaps aware that they were supporting a losing cause, tomorrow’s Congress, not yesterday’s. It is worth wondering what might have been had the contest been a truly open (and fair) one. The history of the Congress party (and the history of India) is peppered with several what-may-have-beens — of how the party’s and the country’s future could have taken a different direction if a different choice had been made. Future historians of the party are certain to pick this election for party president as one — not because of who won and who lost, but because of the opportunity for radical change reflected in 1,072 votes, and how that flame was snuffed out by the statusquoism of 7,897 votes. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
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