Mallikarjun Kharge’s appointment last week as the general secretary in charge of the Maharashtra Congress, could possibly pave way for Rahul Gandhi to be elected as the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha ahead of next year’s Parliamentary elections. Kharge, who has held the position since 2014, could therefore, be relieved of the dual charge in line with the original Congress policy of “one-man one-post” that was followed by both Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao as party presidents; this however, was reversed during Sonia Gandhi’s nearly 20-year-long tenure. As per the original practice, no party leader, other than the president, could hold two portfolios, though this principle was relegated to the background with several functionaries occupying multiple offices.

Sources in the party have confirmed that Rahul was expected to expand his own role, so as to also include the responsibilities of leading the party in the Lok Sabha for enhancing his political profile. Last year, the Congress president underwent an image makeover after he visited the Berkeley University campus in California prior to the Gujarat state elections and projected himself as a serious politician who was not hesitant to gamble with fresh ideas and new faces.

Despite being a very seasoned player, Kharge’s appointment as the leader of the Congress group in the Lok Sabha had raised many eyebrows, given that ideally speaking the position at that point should have gone to Kamal Nath, a nine-time Member of Parliament from Chhindwara, and a Doon School-mate of both Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi. It is evident that some members of Sonia Gandhi’s team were uncomfortable with the idea of handing over the prestigious office to Nath, who is also viewed by many in the party as a person with extraordinary organisational skills, immense experience and the capacity to deliver. However, after Nath was sent to Madhya Pradesh as the state unit president, he for the time being is not in the reckoning for a party slot in Parliament.

Kharge’s induction was part of the party’s plan to project a Dalit on the national stage in the Lok Sabha while endorsing Ghulam Nabi Azad’s nomination in the Upper House. He now has been sent to Maharashtra to reassure the old guard in general and Dalits in particular, that the leadership was well aware of their overall concerns. Ironically, the party’s best known Dalit face, Sushil Kumar Shinde, a former Chief Minister, continues to be amongst the tallest leaders from that state and thus it is difficult to comprehend how Kharge’s appointment would assist the party in Maharashtra so far as the Scheduled Caste votes were concerned.

Therefore the political inference of his being named as an AICC general secretary is that his utility in his home state of Karnataka is not of as much relevance as it was prior to the Assembly elections. In other words, by assigning him an important state, the pivotal Lok Sabha berth could be vacated for Rahul Gandhi. As of now, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul have been monitoring the parliamentary proceedings in a low-key manner. However, Rahul’s probable elevation would definitely help in increasing his visibility and performance on the floor of the House prior to the 2019 clash.

A couple of months ago, Rahul had challenged the Prime Minister to debate with him on vital issues confronting the country and the Congress president apparently is toying with the intention to take on Narendra Modi head-on during the monsoon session. Although his critics may argue that nothing was preventing him from confronting the Prime Minister, yet this move is aimed at sending a signal to the Opposition, which currently is in the process of formulating a joint strategy to curb the influence of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Congress, despite being the largest party, does not figure prominently in the Opposition’s scheme of things as several top leaders are in favour of giving more importance to the regional parties and players. On its part, the Congress appears inclined to play second fiddle to smaller organisations, as was obvious when the party backed Janata Dal (Secular) nominee H.D. Kumaraswamy for the Chief Ministership of Karnataka. There are indications that even for the Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson’s election the Congress was willing to support a candidate of either the Trinamool Congress or the Biju Janata Dal; this despite being the largest Opposition group in the august House. It is apparently clear that the Congress’ topmost priority is to somehow divest the BJP of power at the Centre, and once it was done, it could do a rethink on its overall blueprint.

The Congress is confident of doing well in the forthcoming Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, and some of its leaders believe that when the election outcome in these states goes against the ruling dispensation, the party can proportionally increase its country-wide profile to play a stellar role in national politics.

Rahul’s core team is impelling him, to replicate in the Lok Sabha, his assertive performance in public meetings, so as to counter the BJP’s perennial criticism labelling him a reluctant or part-time politician. However, with the football season on, he has to understand that unless the whole team performs in entirety, even iconic players like Lionel Messi, fail to hold any water. His notability alone is not enough, the Congress as a single outfit, needs to rise to the occasion. Between us.

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