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A Look Back At History Of Congress Presidential Elections As Party Awaits New Chief

Congress has said that the election is significant since it is the sixth time such an electoral contest was being held to appoint a new party chief.

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Mahatma Gandhi attends a Congress Working Committee meeting, January 1940
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The Congress party is set to vote to elect its new President after Sonia Gandhi, and the competition is gearing up. The two contenders for the post are Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor and veteran leader Mallikarjun Kharge, While Tharoor's nomination has generated a lot of interest with the leader proclaiming himself as the face of young Congress, political analysts have been predicting a win for Kharge, the fiery 80-year-old Karnataka MP, who seems to be more in favour with the party high command.

The election is historic since it would be the sixth time in its nearly 137-year-old history that an electoral contest would decide who would take up the mantle of the party's president.

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Also, with Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra not in the running for the party president's post, a non-Gandhi would be at the helm after over 24 years following the polling on Monday and counting on Wednesday.

The Contenders: Old guard vs Face of Change

Senior party leaders Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor are pitted against each other and have been crisscrossing various state capitals to woo the over 9,000 Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) delegates who comprise the electoral college for electing the party chief.

While Kharge is considered the firm favourite and the 'unofficial official candidate' with a large number of senior leaders backing him, Tharoor has pitched himself as the candidate of change. 

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During the campaign, even though Tharoor has raised issues of an uneven playing field, both candidates and the party have maintained that the Gandhis are neutral and that there is no "official candidate".

History of Congress Presidential elections 

The first election for Congress President was held back in It was way back in 1939. Mahatma Gandhi's candidate P Sitaramayya had lost to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

Then in 1950 came the Congress' first election post-Independence for the post of party president when Purshotttam Das Tandon and Acharya Kripalani faced off for the top post. Surprisingly, Tandon, seen as a Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel loyalist, had won the contest trumping the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru's choice.

In 1977, following the resignation of Dev Kant Barooah as party president in the wake of the defeat in the Lok Sabha polls, K Brahmananda Reddy became AICC chief after defeating Siddhartha Shankar Ray and Karan Singh in the party's polls.

The next election for the post of president was held 20 years later in 1997 when Sitaram Kesri squared off in a triangular contest with Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot. Except for Maharashtra and parts of Uttar Pradesh, all state Congress units had backed Kesri. He had posted a landslide victory getting 6,224 delegates' votes against Pawar's 882 and Pilot's 354.

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The third Presidential electoral contest came in 2000 and this was the only time a Gandhi family member was challenged in the elections with Jitendra Prasada taking on Sonia Gandhi. Prasada suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Sonia Gandhi who garnered over 7,400 votes, while Prasada reportedly polled a paltry 94.

The upcoming polls would certainly be historic as the new president would replace Sonia Gandhi, the longest-serving party president who has been at the helm since 1998, barring the two years between 2017 and 2019 when Rahul Gandhi took over.

The Gandhis

In the post-Independence era, a person from the Gandhi family has been at the helm of the party for about 40 years in total. Following the elections, a non-Gandhi would be at the helm of the party after over 24 years following.

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After Independence, with Sitaramayya assuming office as AICC chief in 1948, the party has been led by 17 people so far, of which five have been presidents from the Gandhi family.

In 1947, Acharya Kriplani was the president after which Sitaramayya assumed office as party chief post-independence in 1948-49. In 1950, Tandon became chief following which Nehru served as the party chief between 1951 and 1955. Nehru left the post of Congress president in 1955 and UN Dhebar took over the reins of the party.

Indira Gandhi was the Congress president in 1959, followed by N S Reddy who remained at the helm till 1963. She again became the Congress president and held the reins of the party from 1978-1984.

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From 1985 to 1991 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv Gandhi was the Congress president. The title returned to the Gandhis in 1998 when Sonia Gandhi became President. She remained at the helm till 2017, when Rahul Gandhi became president. Sonia Gandhi returned as interim chief in 2019 after Rahul Gandhi resigned following the Lok Sabha polls debacle. 

Non-Gandhi leaders that have held the post include K Kamraj, PV Narsimha Rao, S Nijalingappa, Sitaramayya and others.

Proof of 'internal democracy"

The Congress has claimed that its internal democracy has no parallel in any other party and it is the only one to have a central election authority for organisational polls.

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Congress general secretary in-charge communications Jairam Ramesh said that the election was significant since it was the sixth time such an electoral contest was being held to appoint a new party chief. ,

"The media has highlighted 1939, 1950, 1997 and 2000. In fact, there had been elections too in 1977 when Kasu Brahmananda Reddy was elected," he pointed out.

Ramesh said he has always believed in the Congress model of evolving a consensus for such positions, noting that the most famous practitioner of this approach in the post-Nehruvian era was K Kamaraj. While Ramesh said that the elections were of less institutional importance than the Bharat Jodo Yatra which the party has undertaken last month, the leader stressed that it is significant the elections are taking place at all. 

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(With inputs from PTI)

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