The leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, has emerged as a frontrunner to be the third candidate for Congress presidency after Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot declared that he will not contest for the post.
Before announcing his decision to pull out “given the situation”, Gehlot met Congress president Sonia Gandhi for about 90 minutes Thursday. He apologised to Sonia for the unprecedented defiance shown by his camp Sunday. He also offered to resign as Chief Minister, The Indian Express has learnt.
Following Gehlot’s pullout and apology, which is being seen as the Gandhi family salvaging its pride, party sources said a “dark horse” with the tacit blessings of the leadership is likely to emerge as the third candidate — other than Shashi Tharoor and Digvijaya Singh.
While a final decision has not been taken, Kharge is said to have emerged as the new face in the race. Sources close to Kharge had earlier indicated that he was not averse to contesting but would proceed only on Sonia Gandhi’s directions.
There was also a buzz in party circles about pressure on Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to contest. Late Thursday, Sonia drove to Priyanka’s residence and was with her for over an hour. Some leaders of the party’s G 23, meanwhile, met and said the possibility of one of them contesting cannot be ruled out in the event of the leadership fielding a “dummy” or “proxy” candidate.
The day, however, was dominated by Gehlot’s statement in public that he had apologised to the party chief — a rare such admission by a Chief Minister. Later, his arch state rival Sachin Pilot met Sonia Gandhi after AICC general secretary K C Venugopal said a decision on Rajasthan will be taken in “one or two days”.
Party sources pointed out that the authority of the high command and supremacy of the Gandhi family was at stake after the virtual revolt in Jaipur Sunday. By getting Gehlot to come to Delhi, publicly apologise to Sonia Gandhi and leave the choice of his successor in Rajasthan to her, the high command has re-established its authority, a party leader told The Indian Express.
According to sources, it was clear that Gehlot was told to say what he said, and it was also conveyed to him that a decision on Rajasthan will be taken by Sonia Gandhi. As Gehlot bowed out, veteran Digvijaya Singh collected a set of nomination forms and declared his intention to file his papers Friday, the last day for doing so. Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor will also file his nomination papers Friday.
During their meeting, Gehlot told Sonia, who had signalled to him to contest for the party post, that he too was dismayed and pained by the events that unfolded in Jaipur Sunday. Later, emerging from another meeting with Sonia, Venugopal, when asked about Rajasthan, said, “Gehlot has already said that this will be decided by the Congress president. The Congress president will give a decision within one or two days.”
Waiting at his Delhi home, watching the developments unfold, was Sachin Pilot. “We discussed the events in Rajasthan in detail,” Pilot said after his hour-long meeting with Sonia. “I have conveyed my sentiments, given my feedback to Sonia Gandhi. Our priority is to win the 2023 assembly polls in Rajasthan for which we will have to work together,” he said.
Asked about the leadership’s plan for Rajasthan, he said, “Whatever positive decisions have to be taken with respect to Rajasthan, the Congress president will take.”
Within the party, several interpretations are being drawn from Gehlot’s statement that he takes “moral responsibility” for the CLP meeting fiasco in Jaipur when around 90 MLAs loyal to him stayed away and held a parallel meeting of their own. The CLP meet was supposed to pass a one-line resolution authorising the Congress president to take a decision on the next CM.
After his meeting with Sonia, Gehlot declared that he had been a loyal soldier of the party all his life, from the time of Indira Gandhi. “I was always trusted and given responsibilities, be it that of a Union minister, PCC president, AICC general secretary. And with Soniaji’s blessings, I became the CM for the third time,” he said.
The incident that happened on Sunday “shook all of us”, Gehlot said. “A message went across the country that I wanted to remain as Chief Minister, and that is why (all that) happened. I have apologised to Sonia… I feel sorry.”
On the aborted CLP meeting, he said, “One simple resolution… one-line resolution… It is our tradition to pass that one-line resolution (authorising the Congress president) when a decision is to be made on a CM. Unfortunately, that resolution could not be passed.”
He said, “Because I am the CLP leader and Chief Minister, and I could not get that resolution passed, whatever the reasons may be, it is my moral responsibility… For the first time, a resolution could not be passed in line with our tradition. I will always regret it, all my life… I told Soniaji that.”
On contesting for the Congress president’s post, he said, “I have decided that, under the circumstances, I will not contest. That is my decision.” On whether he will remain Chief Minister, he said, “Sonia Gandhi will take that decision.”
Later, the leaders of the G 23 — none of them had signed Tharoor’s nomination papers — met at Anand Sharma’s residence amid hectic meetings by the leadership to find a third candidate. Among those present were Prithviraj Chavan, Manish Tewari and Bhupinder Singh Hooda.
Sources in the group said the possibility of one among them contesting cannot be ruled out. Late at night, Sharma drove to Jodhpur House, where Gehlot is staying, and held a meeting with him.
Among the other possible contenders, Madhya Pradesh Congress president Kamal Nath had made it clear that he was not interested in contesting.