The “to be or not to be” dilemma of Rahul Gandhi is over as he has made it clear that neither he nor any member of his family would be contesting for the Congress president’s election. However, it is equally clear that whoever becomes the next chief shall have to receive a strong endorsement from the Gandhis in order to get elected.
Congress is a party where things do not happen as planned but by default and the course of events can undergo a change even at the eleventh hour. The indications at this moment are that Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is the front runner for the post and is expected to file his nomination in the middle of next week.
Gehlot had earlier requested the Gandhis to allow him to continue as Chief Minister for a few months in order to help him consolidate the Congress position in his home state, which goes to the polls next year. He has strong reservations if Sachin Pilot was to succeed him and would want one of his loyalists to be elevated in case he comes to New Delhi as party chief.
There are indications that both Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari may also jump into the fray of the organizational elections and if that happens, there shall be a contest for the presidentship, though only very token; Gehlot, with the support of the Gandhis, would simply have a walkover.
There are several seniors in the party who are in favour of a consensus regarding the choice of the nominee. They feel that in order to face the BJP and other parties, the Congress needs to send a strong message that the party is united behind one person.
Therefore, if there has to be unanimity regarding the top position, there is nobody other than former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Kamal Nath, who can emerge as the dark horse. Kamal Nath is known for his organizational abilities and in the 52 years of his association with the party, virtually knows most prominent party activists. He has expressed his unwillingness to come to the Centre since he is busy building the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, but things can change.
What works in Kamal Nath’s favour is that his stronghold of Chhindwara is the only Congress island in the country; from Panchayat till the Assembly till Parliament, every elected person in Chhindwara is a Congressman. Secondly, even G-23 leaders would accept him as the unanimous choice given that they would always view Gehlot as a nominee of the Gandhis.
Although Gehlot has been with the Congress since his NSUI days, yet, he has certain limitations, despite performing exceeding well as the Chief Minister. He has a problem communicating in English and this could be a handicap when the Congress tries to re-connect with the southern states and non-Hindi speaking regions.
However, the day he files his nomination regardless of others jumping into the fray, Gehlot would be termed as Congress President-elect. What has made the situation fluid is that he has not tendered his resignation from the Chief Ministership and has not indicated when he would be doing so. His supporters say that he shall be filing his nomination on 28 September but he shall than have to resign before that.
Gehlot was hopeful that he would get some more time to stay as the CM, but by invoking the one man-one post principle, Rahul seems to have made this impossible. It is another matter that throughout Sonia Gandhi’s long tenure as the party chief, the one man-one post principle was not followed and there were several ministers in the UPA government, who in addition to their ministerial responsibilities, were made in-charges of states. This violation took place with the Congress president’s approval as also the infringement of other principle in force since Rajiv Gandhi’s time of not allowing losing Lok Sabha candidates to enter the Rajya Sabha.
It is also more or less certain, that even if Gehlot or anybody else becomes the party chief, the Gandhis would play a big role in behind the scenes events. It is another matter that in politics there can be no certainty and things can change overnight.
Soon after Indira Gandhi lost from Rae Bareli in 1977 and D.K. Barooah stepped down as president, she put up K. Brahmananda Reddy for the position. Senior Congress leader, Dr Karan Singh opposed Reddy and announced his candidacy but could muster very few votes. However, Reddy on his election, joined hands with Congress leaders opposed to Indira Gandhi and attempted to sideline her.
The Congress organizational elections would be keenly watched and would help the grand old party to re-discover itself. The president’s election may also pave the way for an elected Congress Working Committee or the restoration of the Congress Parliamentary Board subsequently.
The Gandhis have tactically withdrawn themselves from the organizational posts for the time being since they realise that their acceptance amongst the people had diminished even though they called the shots in the party. Thus, their nominee Gehlot was sure to win with a huge margin.
One is reminded of 2000 when Sonia Gandhi was challenged by Jitender Prasada, who was Rajiv Gandhi and Narsimha Rao’s political secretary. Prasada received a rude shock when he polled only 94 votes against Sonia’s nearly 7,500 votes.
A similar fate awaits those who shall contest against Gehlot. However, ideally speaking, the Congress should elect its next president through consensus. Between us.