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Journalism of Courage

Cong presidential election: Echoes of Jitendra Prasada vs Sonia Gandhi from 22 years ago

Prasada worried about electoral rolls, talked of party democracy; resurgent Sonia hit back over coterie claims. Earlier too, leaders tended to have their way on the post.

Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi. (Express archive)

After a gap of 22 years, the election to the post of Congress president will see a contest; with the party looking at the prospect of a non-Gandhi at the helm for the first time in even longer. In another first, the new president will take over at a time when three members of the Gandhi family — two of them past presidents – are still very active in the Congress.

The build up to the contest this time – which looks set to be between Ashok Gehlot and Shashi Tharoor — is as chaotic as it was in 2000, when Jitendra Prasada faced off against Sonia Gandhi for the top post, two years into her presidency. That made him the first Congress leader to contest against a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family for the party presidency post-Independence.

Even the exchange of letters between Tharoor and Madhusudan Mistry, the head of the party’s Central Election Authority, is more or less similar to the exchange between Prasada and Ram Nivas Mirdha, who held the post then.

Prasada too had written several letters to Mirdha raising questions on the fairness of the election process. He had levelled charges of allegations of manipulation and rigging of the list of Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) delegates — members of the electoral college — before and after he filed the nomination.

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In another parallel, Prasada had launched his campaign from the Sriperumbudur memorial of the late Rajiv Gandhi. Before he started his Bharat Jodo Yatra, which is running parallel to the Congress presidential election drama, Rahul Gandhi paid homage at the memorial.

The framing of Prasada’s campaign was not much different either. He had spoken against “the nomination culture” in the Congress and sought “democratisation of decision-making” in the party. Tharoor too puts forward the same ideas, as does the G-23 letter to Sonia Gandhi in August 2020, of which he was a signatory.

Things were tense between the candidates, with Sonia saying that just as Prasada said that there was a “coterie around me”, “there was a coterie even when Mr. Jitendra Prasada was political advisor to the Congress President in the times of Rajiv Gandhi and (Narasimha Rao)”.


The outcome of the 2000 fight was a foregone conclusion – more than it seems now – due to the presence of Sonia in the race. While Prasada never believed he could defeat Sonia, the final voting figures surely were a shock to him. He could garner just 94 votes. Of the 7,700 votes polled, Sonia secured 7,448.

A key member of the party, Prasada expected more backing, having served as Congress general secretary, and as the political secretary to Rajiv and Narasimha Rao when they were party presidents. In 1995, Prasada had been appointed the party’s Uttar Pradesh chief, and was the AICC vice-president between 1997 and 1998.

Upon his “insistence”, the Congress Election Authority had “decided to mix up the votes from different states” so that the secrecy of the ballot could be ensured and partymen – or so he believed – would vote freely.


But, within the party in 2000, Sonia had been a force to reckon with. Just two years earlier, in 1998, she had become the party president after ousting then chief Sitaram Kesri. She had also survived a major crisis a year later, when senior leaders Sharad Pawar, P A Sangma and Tariq Anwar had raised the banner of revolt, citing Sonia’s “foreign origins”, and left and formed the NCP.

Other Congress president contests

* Subhas Chandra Bose vs Pattabhi Sitaramayya (backed by Mahatma Gandhi)

In 1939, Subhas Chandra Bose fought Pattabhi Sitaramayya, in a re-election to the post, and defeated him. Sitaramayya was seen as Mahatma Gandhi’s nominee. The latter didn’t hide his displeasure, and Bose eventually resigned.

* Purushottam Tandon vs J B Kripalani (backed by Jawaharlal Nehru)

Right after Independence, the first big contest was held for the party chief’s post, when a right-wing faction – including Purushottam Das Tandon, K M Munshi and Narhar Vishnu Gadgil – asserted itself against the established order led by Jawaharlal Nehru.


Tandon threw his hat in the ring and got over 1,000 votes more than the Nehru-led faction’s candidate, J B Kripalani.

An upset Nehru refused to be a member of Tandon’s Working Committee. Tensions became severe after Tandon overruled Nehru’s wish to induct Rafi Ahmed Kidwai into the party’s working committee. Kidwai subsequently resigned.


In July 1951, the discussions reached a tipping point, with Nehru resigning from the CWC. But with the first general election just a year away, Tandon eventually gave in to the pressure from the other side and resigned from the president’s post. Nehru became the president in 1952.

* Neelam Sanjiva Reddy vs V V Giri (backed by Indira Gandhi)


The 1967 to 1977 period, termed the Indira years, also saw infighting, particularly between her and party president S Nijalingappa, who assumed office in 1968.

This was most visible in the 1969 presidential election. Though Neelam Sanjiva Reddy was the official Congress candidate, Indira backed V V Giri, and he won.

A bitter Nijalingappa expelled Indira, the sitting Prime Minister, resulting in the Congress’s split into Congress (O) and Congress (I).

The factions went on to hold their own sessions and the Indira faction elected Jagjivan Ram as president. The rival Congress (O) faction brought a no-confidence motion against the government in Parliament, but it was defeated.

* The Indira, Rajiv years

Jagjivan Ram remained Congress president until 1972, and was succeeded by Shankar Dayal Sharma. Dev Kant Barooah, best known for his “Indira is India and India is Indira” slogan, became president in December 1975. Indira took over the reigns in 1978 and remained president until her assassination in 1984.

Rajiv went on to become the party president in December 1985. His assasination in 1991 pulled the party, and consequently the post, into a crisis.

* Narasimha Rao’s reign

P V Narasimha Rao became the prime minister and got the party president’s post, but faced many internal difficulties

At the AICC session in 1992, Rao held elections to the CWC. And to Rao’s surprise his detractor Arjun Singh won by the highest margin. Sharad Pawar won, too.

In a political masterstroke, Rao then went on to ask the newly-elected CWC to resign on the pretext that women and Dalit candidates were underrepresented. The CWC was reconstituted later, but Singh was put in the nominated category.

In 1994 though, the Congress lost in Rao’s home state Andhra Pradesh, giving his critics impetus to target him. The feud eventually resulted in the ouster of Arjun Singh from the cabinet and his suspension. A breakaway faction called Congress (Tiwari) was formed with N D Tiwari as president and Singh as working president.

* Sitaram Kesri vs Sharad Pawar, Rajesh Pilot

In 1996, Rao resigned from the post and made way for Sitaram Kesri, who had previously served as the party’s treasurer for nearly two decades. Veterans Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot challenged Kesri, but received a drubbing. Kesri polled 6,224 votes against their 882 and 354, respectively.

* Sonia’s coup

In December 1997, Sonia announced her decision to campaign for the Congress in the 1998 elections and became active within the party. A year later, she expressed her willingness for the post and Kesri was removed in a bloodless coup.

In a CWC meeting, some members shocked Kesri by asking him to fix a date for an AICC session for Sonia to be elected the party’s next president. Kesri refused and walked out. The members passed a resolution to appoint Sonia their party chief.

First published on: 23-09-2022 at 13:38 IST
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