Congress party polls | A race for the presidency

Shashi Tharoor’s biggest challenge is that he will be the rebel candidate against the one backed by the Gandhi family

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Rahul Gandhi with Ashok Gehlot and other Congress leaders in Kanyakumari at the Bharat Jodo Yatra launch, Sept. 7

There’s been no official declaration yet, but most Congress leaders, off the record, confirm that there will be at least two candidates for the party’s presidential poll scheduled for October 17—Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot (purportedly backed by the Gandhi family) and Shashi Tharoor, the Lok Sabha MP from Thiruvananthapuram. Of course, as with anything connected to the Congress, the two will enter the fray only if ex-party president Rahul Gandhi sticks to his adamant stand that he will not take up the post.

There’s been no official declaration yet, but most Congress leaders, off the record, confirm that there will be at least two candidates for the party’s presidential poll scheduled for October 17—Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot (purportedly backed by the Gandhi family) and Shashi Tharoor, the Lok Sabha MP from Thiruvananthapuram. Of course, as with anything connected to the Congress, the two will enter the fray only if ex-party president Rahul Gandhi sticks to his adamant stand that he will not take up the post.

If sources are to be believed, a few other senior leaders are also toying with the idea of contesting. The names being bandied about include former Haryana CM B.S. Hooda, ex-Union ministers Anand Sharma and Manish Tewari, and ex-Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah. Incidentally, Hooda, Sharma and Tewari belong to the rebel group of 23 (G23) leaders who had written to party president Sonia Gandhi in August 2020 seeking organisational reforms and an accou ntable and accessible leadership.

Rahul’s close confidants keep insisting the Gandhi scion will not lay claims to the post, which he quit in 2019 after the disastrous Lok Sabha election performance. His critics say the Gandhi family wants to run the party by proxy, avoiding responsibility for the party’s electoral debacles. That’s the reason, they point out, Sonia has requested fam ily loyalist Gehlot to run. “Only the name changes. The real power remains with the family,” says a CWC member.

Tharoor too was part of the G23 and a signatory to the ‘letter’, but has of late maintained a careful distance from the other members. The three-time MP has also never been publicly critical of the Gandhis (though the family loyalists seek to paint him as a rebel). On September 17, Tharoor met Sonia Gandhi to understand the family’s position—whether he would be seen as a rebel if he throws his hat in the ring. “Tharoor doesn’t do anything without homework. The meeting was part of it. He articulated a principled stand, and has the courage and conviction to put his neck on the line,” says a source close to him, adding that Sonia assured him that the Gandhis would remain neutral in the event of a poll.

In fact, a section in the Congress believes Tharoor has been inveigled into contesting to legitimise the Gandhi family’s preferred outcome—a loyalist (read Gehlot) get t ing the job through an election. The professed show of neutrality is to debunk the criticism of running the show by proxy. “Even if this is true, Tharoor should run as it is still a statement worth making,” says a senior Congress leader who did not wish to be named.

Meanwhile, the chosen one, Gehlot, is not so excited about the promotion, as he will lose the Rajasthan CM’s post. More importantly, he doesn’t want bête noire Sachin Pilot, his former deputy CM, to succeed him. Though there is no official confirmation, insiders claim that following his unsuccessful rebellion in 2020, the Gandhi siblings—Rahul and Priyanka—had promised Pilot the chief ministership a year before the state goes to polls in 2023. Gehlot, though, wants one of his loyalists to succeed him.

In a late-night meeting with party MLAs in Jaipur on September 20, Gehlot said he will “continue to take care of the affairs of Rajasthan” even if he is asked to contest the party president polls. A resolution to this impasse is expected during Gehlot’s meeting with Rahul in Kochi on September 22. The Gandhi scion is in Kerala leading the section of the Bharat Jodo Yatra there. Pilot also reached Kerala to walk alongside Rahul on September 17. Political observers feel the two Rajasthan leaders converging at this time in the southern state is crucial. “Rahul may find it easier to unite India than getting these two to patch up,” quips a Congress Rajya Sabha MP.

Many Congress leaders are already saying that Gehlot’s victory—if there is a contest—is a foregone conclusion. “The Congress electorate is steeped in sycophancy, and Gehlot is a Family-backed candidate. Besides, he is acceptable to most senior leaders,” says a CWC member. The Rajasthan CM is a career politician who has spent five decades in the Congress. He has performed various organisational roles, served as minister in the Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao governments and has enjoyed the trust of generations of Gandhis. Gehlot is also a prominent leader from the north, where the party has performed abysmally in the previous two Lok Sabha polls. Adept in the art of realpolitik, he was instrumental in the party’s resurgent performance in the 2017 Gujarat assembly polls and is now again election in-charge in the state this year.

Gehlot is also an OBC leader, just like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which may stand the party in good stead, as the OBC vote bank is considered a swing factor in any election. He also shares a warm equation with most Opposition leaders (indeed much more so than Rahul), which will be essential if the party is to build an alliance to challenge the BJP in 2024. Gehlot’s access to business leaders could also help solve the party’s funds crunch.

That said, his electoral record does not inspire confidence. As incumbent CM, he has never been able to lead the Congress to victory in Rajasthan. And in the past two Lok Sabha polls, the Congress drew a blank in the state. Most importantly, however, he is seen as part of the old guard, a symbol of the Congress inertia that has led to its decline. His elevation, critics say, is unlikely to enthuse either party workers or voters.

In contrast, Tharoor brings a whiff of freshness to the party, thanks to his professional accomplishments and popularity among the educated middle class. A career diplomat, who worked with the United Nations for nearly three decades, an acclaimed author and public intellectual, Tharoor made a lateral entry into the party in 2009, thanks to Sonia, and was made a Union minister straight away.

The suave and articulate Congressman has a great appeal among the aspirational middle class, which played a key role in the evolution of the BJP. Tharoor’s vibrant social media presence and massive following could also help the party build an alternative narrative in a domain where the BJP always has an edge over the Congress.

Where Tharoor falters is in his understanding of the party structure and support within. The veterans are unlikely to cooperate with him; even several G23 leaders are unwilling to accept him as president. Indeed, even leaders in his home state Kerala have come out and said they will not support him. Critics also cite his propensity to get into controversies, thanks to his public comments. But the biggest challenge is that he will be the rebel candidate against the one backed by the Gandhi family.

And that’s what makes it a battle of unequals. Anyway, whoever becomes the next Congress president will have a gargantuan mountain to climb. He or she must revive a moribund party organisation, build a poll-ready narrative and start winning elections. Very few will envy the winner in this.