Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot today gave clear signals to Congress MLAs from the state that he has made up his mind to contest for the post of Congress president in the event of Rahul Gandhi not contesting. This came even as the party leadership indicated that the members of the Gandhi family, including Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, are unlikely to sign on the nomination papers of any candidate as proposers to show that they would remain “neutral” and that there is no official or establishment candidate.
At a surprise meeting of Congress MLAs Tuesday evening, Gehlot is learnt to have said that he was a loyal party man and would abide by whatever decision the leadership takes. He told them he would meet Sonia in Delhi Wednesday and would fly down to Kerala to meet Rahul Gandhi to convince him “one last time” to contest and return as Congress president.
If Rahul does not change his mind, he said, he would do what the party asks him to do.
Gehlot also invited all the MLAs to come to Delhi in the event of his filing of nomination papers. The week-long window for filing of nomination papers opens on September 24. Sources said Gehlot could file his nomination papers after September 26.
Disclosing his plan to meet Rahul in Kochi to try and convince him one last time, he told the meeting: “If he (Rahul) doesn’t agree, and if the party asks me to do something – I have never said no — and if I have to fill the form, I will call all of you (for filing the nomination).”
He also told the MLAs he will never be far away from Rajasthan.
Talking to reporters outside the Chief Minister’s residence after the meeting, Rajasthan Cabinet Minister Pratap Singh Khachariyawas said: “The Chief Minister said that if he fills up the form (for the post of president) it will be when the party directs him to do so and he has always followed (the leadership’s directions).”
Asked who will be the Chief Minister if Gehlot becomes the party president, Khachariyawas said: “Ashok Gehlot is the Chief Minister and will continue to be. There is nothing (pointing to the contrary). He said he is not leaving Rajasthan. When Chief Minister Gehlot himself is preparing for the Budget, it means that the Chief Minister is not going anywhere and will be in Rajasthan.”
But there is uncertainty on whether Gehlot will resign before filing his nomination. Gehlot is said to be keen that he be allowed to continue as Chief Minister for some more time or a person “close” to him is appointed as his successor. While Congress sources denied such talk, there is tension in both Gehlot and Sachin Pilot camps.
The Pilot camp is keen that Gehlot step down before he files his nomination papers and a successor is appointed. Pilot’s supporters are wary that if Gehlot continues as Chief Minister and is elected Congress president, he will have a “huge say” in picking his successor and it may not be Pilot.
Pilot Tuesday reached Kochi to join the yatra with Rahul Wednesday.
AICC general secretary K C Venugopal, who was with Rahul, flew down to Delhi and was closeted with the Congress president for nearly an hour. He then officially declared that the party leadership would remain “neutral.”
“We have already declared that anybody can contest in this election. That is the party’s stand. That is also the stand of the leadership. Whoever contests… the leadership will take a neutral stand,” Venugopal said.
On Monday Shashi Tharoor had met Gandhi and conveyed to her that he is considering contesting for the top post. While almost the entire party, including the leadership, expects a contest, some leaders believe there could be more than two candidates. Like Tharoor, G-23 leader Manish Tewari, too, is said to be considering throwing his hat in the ring. It is unlikely that both of them will contest. Tharoor has indicated he will stay away if a member from the Gandhi family is in the fray and Tewari is said to be of the view that the election should not go uncontested.
Meanwhile, three more states Haryana, Kerala and Jharkhand Tuesday passed resolutions urging Rahul to return to the helm taking the total number of states that have demanded Rahul as president so far to 10.
Said Venugopal: “Rahul Gandhi has not told us anything. Neither has he told us that he will contest… If the people have confidence in Rahul Gandhi, why can’t Congress workers have confidence in him? All the states are demanding… We want Rahul Gandhi (as President)… it is their view. Shouldn’t the party leaders have that much freedom?”