On the face of it, there is little in common between Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor, the two leaders who could face off against each other if the Congress presidential election does indeed go into a contest.
However, both the 71-year-old Gehlot and the 66-year-old Tharoor bring qualities to the table which the grand old party struggling to shake off its existential crisis needs. And these go beyond the more obvious comparisons between the two of experience versus erudition, old school ingenuity versus charisma, even simplicity versus flamboyance (as some would put it).
To begin with, Gehlot and Tharoor have reached where they are now taking diametrically different paths. Gehlot is a career politician who has risen slowly and steadily through the ranks of the Congress organisational labyrinth over five decades. Tharoor, a career diplomat and noted writer, worked with the United Nations for close to three decades, and is a lateral entrant into the party.
A patient listener, Gehlot has formidable organisational experience, is adept in the art of realpolitik, and is well-versed with the intricacies and complexities of the Congress set-up. Once the president of the party’s students’ wing NSUI, Gehlot has been a general secretary at the centre, headed the Rajasthan Congress, been in-charge of several states for the party, was general secretary, Organisation, before K C Venugopal, is a three-time CM in a party that has few of those left, as well as a five-time Lok Sabha MP, and commands the respect of both the Congress’s older generation and the youth.
Plus, Gehlot has worked with almost the entire top leadership of the party and several generations of the Gandhi family. He served as minister in the Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao governments, was considered a close confidant of Sanjay Gandhi, made an easy transition to Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi after Sanjay’s death, and now has the trust of Rahul.
Steeped in Congress history and ways, Gehlot is seen as providing the link between the past and present in the party and the bridge between its younger leaders and the old guard, equations that are increasingly coming under strain now. His impressive grass-roots connect and experience, plus his electoral experience, make him a good person to lead the Congress to winning ways.
Gehlot also belongs to the OBC community, a large and dominant group which has moved away from the Congress and which the BJP is aggressively wooing.
Another big factor in Gehlot’s favour is that he is a leader from the Hindi heartland, where the Congress faced a washout in both the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, and perhaps the party’s only recognisable face in the politically significant region. Others may say that this doesn’t seem to have helped the Congress so far; the party didn’t win a single Lok Sabha seat in Rajasthan under Gehlot as CM and his son was among those who lost.
Last but far from the least, Gehlot is a staunch family loyalist. In other words, he can be no threat to the the Family, particularly Rahul Gandhi.
The flip side of this vast experience is that Gehlot could be reluctant to think out of the box. Plus, he is so entrenched in the Congress maze that his election to the top post could be seen as continuation of the present system. In other words, he can be seen as jaded with nothing new to offer.
Also, oratory is not one of the strengths of Gehlot. As Congress president, he will be up against the likes of prime campaigner Narendra Modi and AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal, who is warming up to the job.
On the other end of the spectrum is Shashi Tharoor, a clean break from the past and a whiff of fresh air that the Congress desperately needs. He will surely bring new ideas – both for rejuvenating and re-energising the party, and democratising the moribund organisation. He is suave, charismatic and impressively articulate, and can appeal to the vast educated and aspirational middle class – the mainstay of the BJP. Given his vibrant social media presence and large following, Tharoor can also set a counter narrative to the BJP or AAP. His formidable reputation as a writer and former diplomat, Tharoor is also seen to bring a global outlook and a new national vision which the Congress has failed to offer all these years.
While he is certainly not young, Tharoor carries the freshness to counter that. And he has already earned the image of a challenger, as part of the G-23 and as an outsider who is willing to speak up and is impatient with the inexorable Congress system. He also carries a clean image. Unlike Gehlot, he will not be seen as a rubber stamp or lame duck Congress president either, functioning in the shadows of the Gandhis.
But this is a knife that cuts both ways. If Tharoor has no mass following or old connections within the party, and can hence strive to move it towards a more merit-oriented than loyalty- or dynasty-driven style of functioning, this also means he can’t draw on any support from within the organisation. On the contrary, many will hold the G-23 tag against him. In fact, on Tuesday, the Congress unit in Tharoor’s home state Kerala too declared itself in favour of Rahul Gandhi becoming the party president.
What is another serious drawback in the case of Tharoor is that he virtually has no organisational experience. While he joined the Congress in 2009 and has been a Lok Sabha MP thrice, he has never worked in the organisation – barring his stint as the head of the All India Professionals Congress since 2017.
Apart from articulation, in which Tharoor has few parallels, running a behemoth like the Congress requires tact and acumen to handle leaders coming from all nooks and corners of the country, hopelessly divided into factions.
Navigating the complex organisation, and balancing the various pulls and pressures, demands and counter-demands, aspirations and ambitions at all levels is the kind of challenge Tharoor has never faced in his 13-year-old political career, or for that matter in his previous avatar as UN official.