The stage is set for the Congress party’s presidential election, with reports suggesting it will be a contest between Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor and Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot.
For 24 years now, a member of the Gandhi family has been the party chief. The last person from outside the Gandhi family who was elected to the top post was Sitaram Kesri, who held the position from 1996 to 1998.
Sonia Gandhi took over the reins in 1998 and served as party chief till 2017. Later, the baton was handed over to her son Rahul Gandhi, who formally resigned as president on July 3, 2019, taking responsibility for the party’s poor performance in the general elections.
Sonia Gandhi then took over as interim party president. She offered to step down about a year later after a group of Congress leaders, known as the ‘G23, questioned the apparent leadership vacuum and called for an organisational overhaul. However, the Congress Working Committee said she should continue.
Party presidential elections have been scheduled three times since then but did not take place. An election had been planned for June 2021, but the Congress Working Committee, the party’s top decision-making body, deferred it because of the Covid-19 crisis.
The upcoming polls are crucial for India’s Grand Old Party and could have long-lasting ramifications for its prospects.
“These elections are important because of two reasons,” said political analyst Sanjay Kumar, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). “Firstly, no person from the Gandhi family will be contesting. Secondly, this will help the party leadership to silence the ruling BJP which criticizes the Congress as a party only run by the Gandhis.”
In recent times, many high-profile Congress leaders have left the party, the latest being former union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. Earlier, Kapil Sibal, former union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, and former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh quit the party.
“If we look back, those who left the party were loyalists to either Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi. Their grudge was with the way the Gandhi family was handling affairs. Most of them have been critical and called for an organised leadership,” said Sanjay Kumar.
Now, a non-Gandhi president will help the Congress in consolidating party workers and leaders at various levels, he added.
According to a senior Congress leader who didn’t want to be identified, leading the party requires a lot of flexibility.
“Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi have the responsibility of leadership. A new president will help in executing the party’s decisions and strengthen the cadre,” the senior leader said.
Impact of non-Gandhi president
The next general elections in India are expected to be held in May 2024 and the chorus for Rahul Gandhi to return as president is growing louder within the party. Many state units have passed resolutions to this effect. The Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee was the first state unit to back Rahul Gandhi’s return as party chief.
Rahul Gandhi is currently leading the party’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, a march that started in Kanyakumari on September 7 and is expected to end in Kashmir after 150 days, after covering a distance of over 3,500 km through 12 states.
However, political analysts said that a non-Gandhi president will have no bearing on the general elections.
“Rahul Gandhi is trying to make a distinction. He has figured out that obsession with presidentship won’t work. Rahul Gandhi knows he will be perpetuating the downfall if he takes the post. People are looking for an alternative to Narendra Modi,” said political analyst Rasheed Kidwai.
He added that Prime Minister Modi was never a party president, but he represented the party leadership and it has worked for him.
“The UPA worked out because there was a strict administrative protocol, which is missing now. Party units passing resolutions backing Rahul Gandhi tells you about the confusion,” said Kidwai.The notification for the Congress presidential election will be issued on September 22 and the poll is scheduled for October 17. There are over 9,000 electoral votes and voting will take place at the Pradesh Congress Committee offices.