Surprise, excitement rise as new names crop up in Congress president battle

With Gehlot out of the race and Digvijaya Singh insisting that he had not sought permission of the Gandhis to contest the election, the Congress rumour mill has been working overtime on speculations that the high command may yet back a third candidate as their nominee in the election at the last minute.

Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi | PTI File Photo

The deadline for filing nominations for the Congress party’s presidential election will end at 3 pm today (September 30). Party leaders Digvijaya Singh and Shashi Tharoor are expected to file their nominations for the election at 11.15 AM and 12.30 PM, respectively, making them the two key contenders for the post as of now.

Yet, there are at least two sections of leaders in the Grand Old Party who believe that within the few hours left before the nomination process comes to a close, surprises can still be sprung. The party’s first family, the Gandhis, could back Mallikarjun Kharge in the contest while a challenger may be fielded by the dwindling ranks of the so-called G23 rebels.

The Gandhis had wanted Ashok Gehlot to contest the polls but the Rajasthan CM, after having reluctantly agreed, ruled himself out of the race on Thursday claiming moral responsibility for the embarrassment that his loyalists heaped on interim party chief Sonia Gandhi earlier this week by derailing her plan for anointing a new chief minister in the desert state.

With Gehlot out of the race and Singh insisting that he had not sought permission of the Gandhis to contest the election, the Congress rumour mill has been working overtime on speculations that the high command may yet back a third candidate as their nominee in the election at the last minute.

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Sonia had assured Tharoor that neither she nor Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will officially endorse any candidate for the October 17 election. There are, however, few takers for this assurance given the long held belief within the party that the Gandhis would not want to cede control of the Congress to an ‘outsider’.

Party leaders who believe the Gandhis will eventually prop up a third candidate – Kharge, leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and the party’s senior-most Dalit leader from Karnataka – say Sonia would never risk the party’s presidency passing on to an independent-minded colleague, even more so after Gehlot’s “betrayal”, as it could swiftly erode the influence that her family wields over the functioning of the GOP.

Also read: Rajasthan mutiny exposes flaws fundamental to Congress leadership

Days earlier, Congress treasurer Pawan Bansal had collected two sets of nomination forms from Madhusudan Mistry, the chairperson of the party’s central election authority. Bansal had made it clear that the forms were not for himself, indicating that he may be a proposer for one of the candidates entering the contest. Since Singh and Tharoor have already collected forms for themselves, those who feel the Gandhis will eventually back a third candidate claim that the nomination papers taken by Bansal were for Kharge.

Late Thursday evening, after a hectic day of trying to sort out the intra-party mess caused by Gehlot loyalists in Rajasthan, Sonia had driven to the residence of her daughter Priyanka for an hour-long meeting. Though sources close to the Gandhi family claim the meeting was to discuss the Rajasthan imbroglio as Priyanka was discreetly involved in ensuring that Gehlot’s arch-rival Sachin Pilot did not break ranks with the party following the Jaipur crisis, it caused a flurry of speculation on whether the mother and daughter were meeting to finalise the family’s nominee for the presidential polls.

Many in the party had suggested that if Sonia declines to stay on as the party chief and Rahul remains adamant on not taking over the role again, Priyanka should step in. Congress MP from Assam, Abdul Khaleque even gave a novel reasoning for backing Priyanka’s candidature claiming that Rahul’s insistence for a non-Gandhi party chief did not rule Priyanka out of the contest since she, by virtue of “being married into the Vadra family is no longer part of the Gandhi family as per Indian tradition”.

However, few in the party believe that Priyanka would enter the contest as this would undermine Rahul’s entire campaign for leaving the presidency to a non-Gandhi. It would also raise questions on why the Gandhis allowed their party to drift away for three years since Rahul quit the post if the presidency was to eventually stay within their family.

Thus the general sense among several leaders of the party seems to be that the Gandhis will prop up another candidate before the nomination process ends and that, if such a move came to pass, Singh would eventually withdraw from the contest by October 8, when the party will declare the final list of contestants.

If the Gandhis have kept the suspense alive, so have the few remaining members of the G-23, the group of leaders that have, for over two years now, kept up pressure on the high command for sweeping intra-party reforms, including an effective and visible leadership. While Sonia had a late night meeting with Priyanka, G-23 members Bhupinder Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan and Manish Tewari too got together at the residence of their co-traveller, Anand Sharma.

Also read: With Digvijaya’s entry, Congress president poll takes interesting twist

While Sharma, senior-most among what remains of the G-23 since its chief Ghulam Nabi Azad quit the Congress, remained tight-lipped on the discussions, Chavan told reporters, “Let’s see who all file nominations; we have heard a few names and we will support the best candidate.”

Tewari, who is rumoured to be interested in contesting the election, was cryptic in his response on what was discussed at Sharma’s residence. “Days pass between collecting, filing and withdrawing nomination papers; a decision (on who the G-23 will support) will be taken once this process is over,” Tewari said.

The discussions between Sharma, Hooda, Tewari and Chavan suggest that they aren’t particularly keen on backing Tharoor though the Thiruvananthapuram MP was one among the original G-23 who wrote that controversial letter to Sonia over two years ago demanding sweeping reforms within the party.

Sources say the four leaders who met at Sharma’s residence, believe Tharoor, much junior to them in the party, “will crash out of the race without any fight” as he lacks support across the Congress rank and file and is “more popular outside the party, on social media platforms, than he is within the Congress”.

Though none of the G-23 members have not yet collected nomination papers from Mistry, sources say they may still back one among them “if it is clear that the frontrunner in the race will act as a proxy for the current leadership instead of being independent and open minded about the way the party needs to function moving forward”.

The possibility of Tewari entering the race as the G-23-backed candidate could strengthen if Kharge is picked by the Gandhis as their choice.

Interestingly, after meeting his G-23 colleagues, Sharma had driven to meet Gehlot for a late night discussion at Delhi’s Jodhpur House, where the Rajasthan CM was staying. It was not immediately clear what the two leaders discussed but the meeting did trigger speculations on whether Sharma was trying to win over Gehlot to the G-23’s side leveraging the bitter put down of the Rajasthan CM by Sonia earlier in the day despite his fierce loyalty to the Gandhi family.

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