The Congress party is set to have its first non-Gandhi chief in over two decades as, after days of drama, the party presidential contest has narrowed down to two leaders — Shashi Tharoor and Mallikarjun Kharge.
Three leaders had filed nominations for the election on Friday, the last day for the process. Besides Tharoor and Kharge, the third leader was former Jharkhand minister K N Tripathi.
Tripathi's nomination for the Congress presidential election was rejected on Saturday, leaving party leaders Kharge and Tharoor in the fray.
The clarity on the Congress party's future leadership comes after days of drama which saw an open rebellion by Congress MLAs in Rajasthan, where Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot was believed to be a contender for the post of party president. It was understood that the Congress high command wanted Gehlot to become the party chief and Sachin Pilot to replace him as the chief minister. But that was not acceptable to Gehlot loyalist MLAs as Pilot had led a rebellion against Gehlot in 2020.
Eventually, Gehlot announced he would not take part in the presidential contest. Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh also said he would run for the party president, but he too later withdrew from the contest.
The change of guard in Congress is part of the Congress party's efforts to revive the organisation with an aim at the 2024 general election. Former party president Rahul Gandhi is leading a Kashmir-to-Kanyakumari "Bharat Jodo Yatra" with an aim to rally support for the party and assert its agenda.
Timeline for Congress presidential election
The last date for withdrawal of nominations is October 8 and the final list of candidates will be out at 5 pm on the same day.
Addressing a press conference at the Congress headquarters in Delhi, the party's central election authority chairman Madhusudan Mistry said the panel met for scrutiny of forms on Saturday.
A total of 20 forms were received during the nomination process. Four of them were rejected as signatures were repeated or did not match, he said.
While Kharge submitted 14 forms, Tharoor submitted five and Tripathi one.
"Two candidates —Kharge and Tharoor— are in a direct contest now. One form of another candidate from Jharkhand has been rejected," Mistry said.
There is a seven-day window for withdrawal of forms till October 8 when the picture will be clearer, he said, adding if no one withdraws, the polling will be held.
Mistry said Tripathi's form was rejected as the signature of one of his proposers did not match and another proposer's signature was repeated. While one rejected form was of Tripathi, Mistry refused to divulge who had filed the other three forms that were rejected
Reacting to the development and sharing the list of valid nominations issued by the chief election authority, Tharoor tweeted, "Delighted to learn that, following scrutiny, Shri Kharge and I will be squaring off in the friendly contest for President of Congress. May the Party and all our colleagues benefit from this democratic process!"
The polling, if needed, will be held on October 17. The counting of votes will be taken up on October 19 and the results will be declared the same day. More than 9,000 Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) delegates will vote in the poll.
The long reign of Gandhis over Congress party
Following the then-Congress President Sitaram Kesri's ouster, Sonia Gandhi became the party president in 1998.
Since 1998, either Sonia or her son Rahul has held the Congress presidency. Sonia is also the longest-serving Congress President.
In 2017, Rahul took over as the Congress President. He resigned in 2019 after taking responsibility for the drubbing in 2019 general elections.
Though elected as Congress President in 1998, Sonia had been active in politics and in public life long before that.
"She was a companion to her mother-in-law, Smt. Indira Gandhi, during many of her official duties and frequently acted as her hostess. During the years 1984 to 1991 when her husband was Prime Minister and then briefly leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, she assumed a limited public role, mostly accompanying him on his tours in the country and abroad," notes the Congress on its website.
Rediff News in 1998 reported that Sonia was also very active in the general elections at the time.
"Apart from distributing party tickets, he [Sitaram Kesri] visited very few places to forward the party's cause. In contrast, Sonia made whirlwind tours of remote parts of the country and the attendance at her meetings became the envy of Opposition politicians," reported Rediff in 1998, contrasting her with the then-ousted party chief Kesri.
(With PTI inputs)