With Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot emerging as the choice of the Nehru-Gandhi family to succeed Sonia Gandhi as the Congress president, the possibility of a contest for the top post cannot be ruled out, sources said. If the 71-year-old Gehlot files his nomination with the obvious backing of the Gandhis, sources said the G-23 could field a candidate to challenge him.
Ending all speculation regarding election to the post, the Congress Wednesday announced that a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) will be held virtually on Sunday to “approve the exact schedule of dates for the election of the Congress president”. Sonia Gandhi, who is abroad for a medical check-up, along with Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, will preside over the crucial meeting.
For the Congress, Gehlot fits the bill on several counts.
By electing a non-Gandhi to the top post – after a long gap of over 24 years – the Congress can hope to blunt the BJP’s attack over dynastic politics. While the party’s critics can still say that he is the choice of the Gandhis, and precisely because the veteran poses no threat to Rahul, Gehlot is more than just a family retainer.
Though a staunch loyalist, he is arguably the most prominent face of the Congress in the Hindi heartland, where the party desperately needs to stage a revival if it wants to pose a meaningful challenge to the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections; he is an OBC leader, and the BJP is aggressively wooing OBCs; and he has rich organisational experience having been general secretary in-charge of several states and the organisation in the past.
Gehlot’s elevation as the Congress president also gives the leadership an opportunity to resolve the tussle in Rajasthan. The Gandhi siblings are said to have assured Gehlot’s rival Sachin Pilot, the former Deputy CM, that they would elevate him to the CM’s post a year before the Assembly elections. Shifting Gehlot to Delhi would clear the way for the young Pilot.
Sources in the G-23, however, did not rule out the possibility of the group forcing a contest. The last time an election in the real sense was held for the post of Congress president was way back in 2001, when Jitendra Prasada contested against Sonia. He was defeated by 7,448 votes to 94.
In 1997, Sitaram Kesri had faced a challenge from heavyweights Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot. He defeated them easily by securing 6,224 votes against Pawar’s 882 and Pilot’s 354 respectively.
Since 2000, Sonia and then Rahul have never faced a challenge.
Although it will be an uphill battle, the G-23 believes that putting up a candidate against the official nominee, even if it is the veteran Gehlot, is important to prove a political point – that it is the “system” and the “style of running the party” which needs to change and not the face.
Sources said Ghulam Nabi Azad’s decision to decline the chairmanship of the campaign committee in J&K and Anand Sharma’s resignation as head of the steering committee for the Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh were signs of things to come.
But who will the G-23 candidate be? Sources said Azad is not keen. Sharma too is reportedly not interested.
Some leaders said it could be Shashi Tharoor or Manish Tewari, the articulate and suave Lok Sabha MPs of the party. Both of them are former Union ministers. Tewari has risen through the ranks, having headed the NSUI between 1988-93 and then the Youth Congress in 1998-2000, both tumultuous periods in the party’s recent history.
G-23 leaders believe that ideas like decentralisation of power, revival of a collective decision making mechanism (Parliamentary Board) and empowering state units are ideas whose time has come.
But a decision to field a candidate is easier said than done. Given the composition of the electoral college and the hold of the family over the party, the candidate who has the subtle backing of the Gandhis will have a definite advantage. Even the mighty Pawar and Pilot could not defeat Kesri. The challenger, some fear, could also earn the displeasure of the family.
Gehlot, meanwhile, sought to downplay the talk that he could be made Congress chief. “This has been doing the rounds in the media for a long time. You keep talking about it. Nobody knows what is going to be decided,” he said.
Gehlot said he is concentrating on the two responsibilities given to him – as senior observer for the coming Gujarat Assembly polls and CM of Rajasthan. “Has anybody briefed you at the AICC? No one has done that. Media keeps on speculating. Till a decision is made, neither you nor I can comment on it,” he said.