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Explained: Electing a Congress president — how these polls are meant to be held, how it plays out

Without a regular president since 2019, the Congress has put off its presidential election again. A look at how polls to the president’s post and key party bodies are meant to be held, and how it actually plays out.

Written by Manoj C G | New Delhi |
Updated: February 3, 2021 10:26:13 am
Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi at Parliament House (Expres photo/Anil Sharma)

ON JULY 3, 2019, Rahul Gandhi made public his decision to step down as Congress president taking moral responsibility for the Congress’s disastrous showing in the Lok Sabha elections that May. On August 11, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) appointed Sonia Gandhi as interim president despite Rahul suggesting that someone from outside the Gandhi family should helm the party.

Over one-and-a-half years of internal turmoil later, the Congress is still without a full-time president. It had set in motion the process of elections last August when Sonia constituted a Central Election Authority. But the CWC, which met on January 22 this year, decided to put off the exercise until June in view of the forthcoming Assembly elections in four states.

There is still no clarity on whether Rahul would return as Congress president. In his 2019 open letter, he had said “rebuilding the party requires hard decisions and numerous people will have to be made accountable for the failure of 2019”. There is no clarity on whether anyone has been held accountable either.

When were organisational elections last held in the Congress?

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That was in in 2017, after a gap of seven years. At its 83rd plenary in Burari in December 2010, the party had amended its constitution to provide for organisational elections once in five years (it was once in three years earlier). The party had also extended its president’s term to five years from three years. So, the elections of 2017 had actually been due in 2015.

According to the Congress constitution, elections are to be held right from the primary committee — at the booth level — to that for the post of Congress president. But more often than not, an election in the truest sense is avoided and the president and committees are appointed through consensus at all levels of the party. In the case of Rahul too, there was no challenger and he was elected unopposed. The Central Election Authority had nevertheless come out with a detailed schedule, with last dates for filing nominations, withdrawal, scrutiny etc. According to the Congress constitution, “any ten delegates may jointly propose the name of any delegate for election as President of the Congress.”

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Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. (Express Photo by Anil Sharma.)

Only twice in the last 40-odd years have elections in the true sense been held. The last time was in 2000 when Jitendra Prasada contested against Sonia. He was defeated by 7,448 votes to 94. In 1997, Sitaram Kesri had defeated heavyweights Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot easily, with 6,224 votes against Pawar’s 882 and Pilot’s 354. Since 2000, Sonia and Rahul have never faced a challenge.

What will happen in June?

According to the Congress constitution, “in the event of any emergency by reason of any cause such as the death or resignation of the President elected.. the senior most – General Secretary will discharge the routine functions of the President until the Working Committee appoints a provisional President pending the election of a regular President by the AICC”.

The CWC had appointed Sonia as the provisional president. So, a regular president is to be appointed for the rest of the term. Since organisational elections are due in 2022, the regular president will have a term of roughly one-and-a-half years.

While the president is elected by an electoral college of Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) delegates, party leaders said a regular president is appointed by the All India Congress Committee (AICC), which means the electoral college will consist only of AICC members. There were some 9,000-odd PCC delegates in 2017; the AICC is expected to have around 1,500 members.

According to the Congress constitution, the AICC consist of “one-eighth of the number of the PCC members elected by them from amongst themselves by proportional representation according to the system of single transferable vote”. Four members each will be elected from the Chandigarh, Andaman & Nicobar, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman & Diu and Lakshadweep units. The leader of the party in Parliament, its leaders in the legislatures, 15 members elected by the Congress in Parliament, and members co-opted by the CWC from special categories too are members.

During a CWC meeting in June 2020

Why the delay in the election of the Congress president?

The party said the CWC has decided to put off the elections in view of forthcoming Assembly polls in Kerala, West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. But a section of the leaders feel there is still no clarity on whether Rahul has agreed to come back as president (those close to him say he is willing).

There is pressure on the leadership from a group of influential leaders — popularly known as G-23 — to hold elections to the CWC and Central Election Committee, which finalises party candidates for Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. After the CWC meeting, AICC general secretary (organisation) K C Venugopal had said the party was willing to hold CWC elections but a little clarity was needed over “whether the Congress president election and Working Committee can be together, or that after the Congress president election, Working Committee election has to be held”.

Why are elections to the CWC and CEC important?

The CWC is the party’s “highest executive authority”. According to the Congress constitution, the CWC shall consist of the party president, its leader in Parliament, and 23 other members, of whom 12 will be elected by the AICC and the rest appointed by the president.

In the last 50 years or so, Congress leaders say, genuine elections have been held to the CWC only twice. On both occasions, a person outside the Nehru-Gandhi family was at the helm — P V Narasimha Rao during the AICC’s 1992 plenary in Tirupati, and Kesri during the 1997 Kolkata plenary. Sonia, who became Congress president in April 1998, always nominated the members of the CWC. The CEC too has been a nominated body for long.

The G-23 leaders believe elections to the CWC and the CEC will end the culture of patronage in the party. They have also been demanding revival of the powerful Congress Parliamentary Board (discarded during the Narasimha Rao era), for “collective thinking” and decision making on organisational matters, policies and programmes”. The party constitution says the CWC “shall set up a Parliamentary Board consisting of the Congress President and nine other members, one of whom will be the leader of the Congress Party in Parliament”; the Congress president will be the board’s chairman.

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The CEC “shall be set up consisting of members of the Parliamentary Board, and nine other members elected by the AICC for the purpose of making the final selection of the candidates of the State and Central Legislature and conducting election campaigns”. In other words, the election to the CEC will require constitution of the Parliamentary Board first.

The attempt is to ensure a collective leadership. In the Congress today, the first and last word is that of the Gandhis. If 12 of the 25 members of the CWC are elected, the hope is that the Congress president will not be able to remove them at will. The CWC, half of which is elected, will then set up the Parliamentary Board. Half the members of the CEC will be members of this Parliamentary Board and the other half will be elected by the AICC.

It is another matter that in 1992, after some of his detractors such as Arjun Singh, Pawar and Pilot won, Rao had got the entire CWC to resign saying no SC, ST, or woman had been elected. He then reconstituted the CWC, and inducted Singh and Pawar in the nominated category.

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