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Congress needs a disruption. But will it take the risk?

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Sitaram Kesri, the last Congress leader without a Gandhi surname to lead the party, would have had a thing or two to say about how that experiment has typically gone. Ousted unceremoniously in 1998 — even locked in the bathroom of the party headquarters by some accounts — Kesri was left isolated, with only his famed Pomeranian, Ruchi, for company.

Sonia Gandhi stepped in to take charge.

The rest, as they say, is history, and since history is condemned to repeat itself — at least in the absence of structural changes — it is this question that should be at the heart of the current churn in the party: Will the next Congress president report to the Gandhi family?

Digivijaya Singh, the never-say-die veteran of old-style realpolitik who finally opted out of the race on Friday, is unequivocal — the Gandhi family will remain in the saddle of authority. Mukul Wasnik, the low-key Dalit leader from Maharashtra whose name did the rounds briefly as a contestant, has zero flamboyance. Some members of the G23 — the mildly rebellious group within the Congress that first demanded party reforms — joke that they were so surprised by Wasnik’s early presence on their side that they thought he might have been an establishment plant. And Mallikarjun Kharge, the leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and current favourite to be the party president, only stepped in after a late-night call from Sonia Gandhi, indicating who will call the shots.

The only Congress politician to have asserted a principled and forceful autonomy around the post of Congress president is Thiruvananthapuram parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor. That is precisely why he is least likely to win the election and also why many people at large might root for him over any of the other candidates. In other words, Tharoor may win more points outside the Congress than inside its status quoist culture.

“The Gandhis would continue as the moral conscience of the party, of course… but there is no provision for the Congress president to report to anyone else,” argued Tharoor in a recent interview with me. Since the Congress is not in government, he asserted, there was no space for a formal dualism in power as it existed when Manmohan Singh was prime minister and Sonia Gandhi led the party. Tharoor drew a parallel between Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) and Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) — multiple ironies there, given that JP had risen as a moral force against Indira Gandhi. But his messaging was clear — the Gandhis, he said, had spoken repeatedly about wanting to step back, so why disbelieve that? “Any self-respecting Congress president would expect to function with a certain authority,” he said.

It is so refreshing to hear a Congress politician talk like this. It makes for a much-needed break from the cult of worship that has defined the relationship between the party and the Nehru-Gandhi family. I joked with Tharoor that the independence of his words and the openness of his ambition might disqualify him at the start. He made a self-deprecating joke about being “the boy on the burning deck”, only to later add with more seriousness: “I am no babe in the woods; I don’t enter this contest with naivete.”

Tharoor’s critics slot him as a deracinated Stephanian elite, unrooted from the hurly-burly of heartland politics. It’s a caricature he strenuously contests, pointing to his three hard-won tenures of electoral victory in contrast to the “Rajya Sabha members (who have never fought an election) who make these comments.”

The author-diplomat-turned-politician says one of the reasons he threw his hat into the ring was because he was told he may have a political appeal that goes beyond the classic Congress voter. He is not incorrect. Even those who love to hate him among the Bharatiya Janata Party supporters have a certain grudging admiration for him, in particular, his interventions on the global stage on what colonialists owe modern India. “Tharoor is the only Congressman the media loves,” Shruti Kapila, professor at Cambridge University, remarked to me wryly.

But the interest in Tharoor is not because of the expanse of his vocabulary or the sophistication of his posh accent. It is because he has a compelling backstory as a professional entrant into politics without a family dynasty or godfather. And because he has a genuine resonance with a certain kind of aspirational India.

In Kharge, the Gandhis may find the sort of leader they are comfortable with — dependable, stable and low-key. He will never outshine them, willfully or accidentally. In contrast, whatever you say about Tharoor, he has remained his own person. In him, the Congress has a chance to offer a new face to the country, when it is jaded and battling for relevance.

The Congress needs a disruption but likely won’t risk it. Welcome then, to the new, old Congress. More of the same.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author The views expressed are personal

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