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Congress choice for chief is between ‘think tomorrow’ Tharoor and ‘president not leader’ Kharge

As the Congress presidential election reaches its final stage, the onus is with the Gandhis. Will this be a new Congress or will the family writ continue to loom large?

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After a lot of speculation, it is now clear that the Congress party, for the first time in 22 years, will not have a Gandhi at its administrative helm.

The battle for the post of Congress president seems to be now between Shashi Tharoor and Mallikarjun Kharge, both MPs and senior leaders of the party who filed their nominations Friday.

The nominations put to rest weeks of speculations and rumours about the possible contenders, which included current chief ministers, former chief ministers, members of the dissident G-23 group and those considered close to the Gandhi dispensation.

For three weeks and more, internal elections of the Congress party were discussed incessantly on prime time and the upcoming assembly elections in two states were seemingly forgotten. And that is why the Congress presidential election is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.

Also read: Gehlot pulls out of race for Congress chief, takes ‘moral responsibility’ for Rajasthan fiasco

The ‘neutral’ Gandhis

AICC general secretary Madhusudan Mistry Friday categorically said neither the Gandhi family has endorsed anyone’s nomination nor has the party units in any state called any meeting whatsoever. “Congress president has made it very clear in the beginning that she is neutral in the election. If anyone claims that they have the ‘blessing’ of the Congress president, then that’s not true,” he said at a press conference.

But events leading up to the nomination process suggest otherwise.

First, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot was called for a meeting with Sonia Gandhi a couple of weeks ago, after which rumours started doing the rounds that he had been asked to contest the election.

The Gandhis never officially communicated their preference, but the Rajasthan fiasco suggests the party high command may have wanted Gehlot to contest.

The CM, though, did not want to let go of Rajasthan, and flew to Kochi to meet Rahul Gandhi at the Bharat Jodo Yatra and convince him to contest for the post.

Gehlot’s consistent line, until he said that he was filing nominations, was that he would contest only if the “party asks him to”.

But after last week, Gehlot’s chief ministership also hangs in the balance now, with Sonia Gandhi said to take a decision in a few days.

When Gehlot’s credentials as “preferred candidate” came into question, in jumped Digvijaya Singh, who had earlier ruled himself out of the race. But his bravado was short-lived when by Friday morning, hours before the final deadline for nomination, Mallikarjun Kharge entered the scene. It was clear that the Gandhis had spoken once again. Digvijaya dropped all plans of contesting the election and even signed Kharge’s nomination form as one of his proposers.

These nomination forms were circulated by the party machinery to display the heft of Kharge’s nominators, which included A.K. Antony (called out of retirement), Ambika Soni, Ashok Gehlot, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Salman Khurshid, Pramod Tiwari, P.L. Punia, and Rajeev Shukla. What surprised many, however, were four names on the list—Anand Sharma, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Manish Tewari and Prithviraj Chavan. The four still identify with the G-23 group and have criticised the hold Gandhis have over the party and its decision-making in the past. For them to support Kharge over Shashi Tharoor, a fellow G-23 member, is some indication of which way the election might go.

Tharoor, on his part, has maintained that Sonia Gandhi promised him of her neutrality. Planning his campaign for a much longer time than Kharge (who was propped up overnight), Tharoor also has a slogan to start his campaign—Think Tomorrow, Think Tharoor.

He contends that he’s talking about reforms in the party.

“It is not surprising that most of the existing administration is rallying behind the candidate who looks to maintain the status quo. But those in the party who want reforms will support me,” Tharoor said at a press conference after filing his nomination.

Unlike Kharge, he’s also held his list of nominators close to his chest, though he did divulge that he had the support of MPs from at least four states and a general secretary.

Sources say that this is because those who nominated Tharoor are being pressured by the dispensation to take back their signatures and Tharoor wants to ensure that their identity remains a secret till the scrutiny of the forms are done.

Also read: Why Congress’ G-23 is backing ‘Gandhi candidate’ Kharge for party president over Tharoor

The leader and the president

In the run-up to the nomination process, Congress leaders started drawing an important distinction between the ‘leader’ and the ‘president’.

In an editorial in The Indian Express, senior party leader P. Chidambaram wrote that the party cannot move away from the influence of the Gandhis. “In my view the election of a non-Gandhi as Congress president will not mean that the party has abandoned the Gandhis or vice versa,” Chidambaram said in the article.

He gave the example of M.K. Gandhi, who never held the post of Congress president, but was the ‘leader of the party’. During the time, he says, one post did not try to dominate the other.

But how true is that for the Congress party now? In the ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Congress is clearly pushing the brand Rahul Gandhi. The candidate who ostensibly has the support of all or most of the party’s senior leaders is one chosen by the Gandhis. Several Congress leaders I spoke to said they already know the outcome of the election, but refused to divulge any detail.

But those playing devil’s advocate point towards two universal truths in politics — gratitude is often forgotten and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Therefore, a “puppet” may not necessarily listen to the puppeteer for long once the strings are cut.

The onus now, as always, is with the Gandhis. Will this be a new Congress or will the writ of the family continue to loom large?

Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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