Setting up a contest to decide a new Congress president after a gap of 22 years, Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge and Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor Friday filed their nomination papers for the election on October 17. With the deadline ending for filing nominations, their move also confirmed the elevation of a non-Gandhi family member to the top post after nearly two-and-a-half decades.
With almost the entire top brass of the AICC rallying behind him, Kharge emerged as the unofficial establishment candidate and Tharoor the challenger. The third candidate in the fray is former Jharkhand minister K N Tripathi. With around 9,100 PCC delegates eligible to cast their votes, the counting will be held on October 19.
As expected, Digvijaya Singh, who had collected his nomination forms Thursday, opted out and signed on Kharge’s papers. Kharge’s candidature was also proposed by Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who had bowed out of the race after falling out of favour with the high command.
Kharge’s proposers included an array of CWC members and AICC office-bearers, such as Ambika Soni, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Ajay Maken, Tariq Anwar, Salman Khurshid, Deepender Hooda, Pramod Tiwari, P L Punia, Avinash Pande and Rajeev Shukla. There were also senior leaders of the G-23, such as Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Anand Sharma, Manish Tewari and Prithviraj Chavan.
In all, Kharge filed 14 sets of nomination papers with ten separate proposers listed in each. The line-up was a clear indication that the Karnataka veteran’s candidature had the tacit approval of the high command, although party chief Sonia Gandhi had conveyed to Tharoor that the leadership would remain neutral.
Kharge emerged as the establishment’s choice Thursday night after Gehlot, who was the original pick of the Gandhis, bowed out in the wake of the virtual revolt by MLAs in his camp last weekend over the possibility of him being replaced as Chief Minister.
The Indian Express had reported Thursday that the possible candidature of Digvijaya Singh, who did not file his nomination papers after stating that he would do so, was a smokescreen to get Gehlot to fall in line. Besides, sources said, several leaders had conveyed to the leadership that Singh was a “polarising figure” and cannot be elevated to the top post.
The second choice of the Gandhis was Mukul Wasnik but it is learnt that he was not keen to throw his hat into the ring. Madhya Pradesh Congress president Kamal Nath, too, had conveyed a similar line to the leadership. Bhupinder Singh Hooda is also learnt to have declined a suggestion to contest.
The 58-year-old Ajay Maken was in consideration, too, in line with the leadership’s initial inclination for a candidate who is either relatively young or from the Hindi-speaking region.
The choice then narrowed down to 80-year-old Kharge, a staunch loyalist of the Gandhi family and seen as a safe bet to ensure continuity. The added advantage, sources said, was his “humble background” and Dalit identity. If elected, he will be the second Dalit leader to hold the post after Jagjivan Ram.
The hope is that Kharge, who is seen as a “docile” figure, would not assert himself and create friction with the Congress experimenting with separation of the post from the Gandhi family for the first time since a seven-year stretch starting 1991.
Sonia Gandhi was not in politics when P V Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri, who was the last non-Gandhi Congress president, were at the helm from 1991 to 1998. Kesri held the post from 1996 before Sonia Gandhi took over two years later.
The last contest for the post was held in 2000 when the late Jitendra Prasada contested unsuccessfully against Sonia who later handed over the mantle to Rahul Gandhi in 2017. Rahul stepped down in 2019 after the Lok Sabha debacle and Sonia returned as interim president.
Kharge said, “I was encouraged by all leaders, party workers and delegates from key states to contest… I have always been fighting this battle and I am keen to fight more to uphold the ideals of the Congress party with which I have been associated since my childhood.”
Later, Tharoor tweeted that he spoke to Kharge “to wish him the best”. “He recalled when I first met him in Bangalore during my UN days, when he was Home Minister. We worked well together in the Lok Sabha & he was gracious as ever in wishing me luck,” he tweeted.
Spoke to Mallikarjun @kharge ji to wish him the best in the upcoming election. He recalled when I first met him in Bangalore during my UN days, when he was Home Minister. We worked well together in the LokSabha & he was gracious as ever in wishing me luck. @INCIndia
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) September 30, 2022
Tharoor was the first to file the nomination papers, reaching the AICC headquarters at 24, Akbar Road, around 12.30 pm after offering prayers at Rajghat and Veer Bhumi, the memorial for Rajiv Gandhi.
His supporters created a festive atmosphere of sorts, shouting slogans and beating drums, as the 66-year-old MP from Thiruvananthapuram filed five sets of nomination papers. His proposers were from 12 states, including four MPs — Karti Chidambaram, Pradyut Bordoloi, M K Raghavan and Mohammad Jawed — and party veteran Mohsina Kidwai.
Speaking to reporters, Tharoor appeared unruffled by the AICC top brass backing Kharge but did take a few potshots at them. He called Kharge the “Bhishma Pitamah” of the party but at the same time, described him as a candidate of continuity. He framed the contest as a choice between change, which he represented, and continuation of status quo.
The third candidate, Tripathi (45), is a former party MLA and state minister from Jharkhand. He came on the national radar during the 2019 Assembly elections, when as the Congress candidate from Daltonganj, he brandished guns after supporters of the BJP candidate allegedly surrounded him in his constituency.
After the nomination process, the party’s central election authority chairman Madhusudan Mistry said, “None of the three is the official candidate of the party. The Congress president has made it clear that she will stay neutral in this election and it is not correct if anyone claims to have her blessings.”