Congress will have a non-Gandhi President for the first time in over 20 years. Ashok Gehlot, a Gandhi family stalwart, will run for party leader over Shashi Tharoor, who is among those in the party who want major internal reforms.
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Shashi Tharoor, a former Union minister, was the first to declare his intention to run for a post that has been with the Gandhis – either Sonia Gandhi or her son Rahul – for almost 25 years. He is a prominent member of Congress’ G-23, or a group of 23 leaders who wrote to Sonia Gandhi in 2020 to call for an organizational overhaul and blamed the party’s downward spiral on a leadership churn.
Mr Tharoor met Sonia Gandhi on Monday afternoon, who has just returned from a trip abroad for a medical check-up, and was given the green light to run in the October 17 election.
Within hours, the battle for the top spot in Congress became significantly fiercer when Ashok Gehlot emerged as the second candidate. The Prime Minister of Rajasthan, a staunch supporter of the Gandhi family, had until recently been pushing for Rahul Gandhi’s return as party leader. He is likely to gain support among those fighting for the status quo and a return to power for Rahul Gandhi.
“Anyone who wishes to enter a competition is free and welcome. This was the consistent position of the Congress Party and Rahul Gandhi. This is an open, democratic and transparent process. Nobody needs anyone’s nod to enter a competition,” said Jairam Ramesh. Congressman and General Secretary of the Communications Party.
Elections for the office of Congress President will take place next month. The submission of nominations for the office of President begins in three days. The elections come amid the resignation of a number of key leaders last year. The last to leave was senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, whose departure was emulated by most leaders of the party’s Jammu and Kashmir entity.
Sonia Gandhi – who served as Congress President for 19 years and handed over the reins to son Rahul Gandhi in 2017 – has been interim leader of Congress since resigning in 2019 and bears responsibility for the party’s second consecutive general election defeat. It has failed to contain the crisis as the party has since lost a string of state elections, sparking calls for a sweeping leadership change.
Mr Gandhi, who currently heads the party’s “Bharat Jodo” yatra, has adamantly refused to return as president despite relentless demands from some Congress leaders, including Mr Gehlot. Some of those who have quit the party have claimed that Mr Gandhi is the unofficial decision maker and have complained that a clique around him is in charge.
When the elections were announced, state by state units in Congress called for Mr Gandhi to return as president. Many in the party see this as an attempt to put the Gandhis in power with or without elections. As the election approaches, more such requests are likely to come in.
The unabated decline of Congress has been a shot in the arm for opposition parties like the Trinamool Congress and Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, which have fought for space in both the states and opposition ranks. Mr Kejriwal declared last week that the Congress in Gujarat, where elections are approaching, was “finished”.
The last non-Gandhi president was Sitaram Kesari, who was replaced by Sonia Gandhi in March 1998, two years after the Narasimha Rao government was voted out. When Congress was at a low ebb, Mrs Gandhi, who had decided to stay away from politics after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, had declared that she would join the party.