With the nomination of former Jharkhand minister KN Tripathi rejected over technicalities, the contest for Congress president is officially a one-on-one between veteran Mallikarjun Kharge, 80, who is apparently backed by the Gandhis, and Shashi Tharoor, 66, who claims to stand for change.
KN Tripathi, who was hardly in the game anyway, had his form rejected as the signature of one of his proposers didn’t match and another’s signature was repeated.
A former diplomat, Mr Tharoor insists “this is not a war”, but wants the voters — an electoral college of over 9,000 delegates — to see Mr Kharge as a symbol of status quo, meaning the Gandhis holding power themselves or by proxy.
His slogan lays claim to the future — ‘Think Tomorrow, Think Tharoor’ — as the party hopes 2024 brings it something better than a third consecutive drubbing by the BJP.
“Mr Kharge and I can belong to different schools of thought. We are associates in the same party. Let the members decide,” the former minister and now third-term MP from Kerala said on Saturday.
“All I am telling the members is that if you’re satisfied with the functioning of the party, please vote for Kharge saab. But if you want a change — if you want the party to function differently — choose me,” he said.
He ran into some trouble yesterday over a wrong map of India in his manifesto, which he corrected with an apology and no apparent loss of drive.
— Shashi Tharoor For INC President (@PrezTharoorINC) September 30, 2022
Mr Kharge, MP from Karnataka, on Saturday resigned as the leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha — heeding to Congress’s ‘one person, one post’ rule — a day after more than 30 leaders backed his candidature.
Opponents juxtapose his age with the party’s push for newness. But identity is at play too.
His backers underline that he’s a Dalit and, if elected, will be only the second Congress president from the historically oppressed castes after Jagjivan Ram in the 1970s.
His becoming a candidate at all was a surprise. The Gandhis had to fall back on the veteran of 50 years in politics after Ashok Gehlot fell out of the race over the one-post-only norm — his loyalists insisted he remain Rajasthan Chief Minister. Mr Gehlot has backed Mr Kharge.
Shashi Tharoor, one of the group of 23 seen as rebels after they wrote to Sonia Gandhi demanding reforms in 2020, was not accompanied by as many senior leaders when he filed his nomination. Not that he’s the G-23 candidate either. Some from that group stand with Gandhis and Mr Kharge, some have left the party altogether.
No contest would be needed if either of the candidates withdraws his nomination — the last date is October 8.
But that’s unlikely. Mr Kharge’s is the preeminent choice, and Mr Tharoor is keen on a contest.
Voting is on October 17, and result will be out two days later.
This is the first election in over 20 years without a Gandhi — current boss Sonia Gandhi or her son Rahul Gandhi — up for the party’s top post.
The last time the party had a non-Gandhi chief was in 1998, in Sitaram Kesari, who was replaced by Sonia Gandhi after she finally joined politics at a time when the Congress was struggling to keep itself together.
She handed it over to Rahul Gandhi in 2017, who resigned after the 2019 Lok Sabha loss. Ever since, she’s been interim chief.
While Rahul Gandhi remains the face of the party — evident in his leading the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ to build 2024 poll momentum — the family is not in the contest apparently to blunt the nepotism charge.