After a direct 'request' from interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot is emerging as a front runner to become the next president of the Congress party.
On his part, Gehlot has continued to deny this speculation and said that he is "getting to know of this from the media only."
He further expressed his desire to see Rahul Gandhi return as party president.
"Every Congress worker wants to see Rahul Gandhi take over as president. This would be the best step to inspire them," he said.
However, Gandhi is said to be unwilling to take charge. The idea is that he may focus full time on the party's upcoming mass contact programme – the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
Sonia Gandhi has also said that the party should have a full-time president and that she doesn't want to continue as interim head any more, given her health challenges.
The main development that is pointing in Gehlot's direction is Sonia Gandhi's conversation with him. She is said to have requested him to take over as president and that this is the best way forward for the party.
The picture will be clearer after the Congress Working Committee meets on 28 August.
This story will try and look at three questions:
Why is Ashok Gehlot being considered?
Will the Rajasthan CM agree?
What happens next?
Why Ashok Gehlot?
Gehlot has several advantages:
Three-term chief minister of Rajasthan. He is a self-made mass leader from a Hindi-speaking state, and making him the president would be a good step in the direction of reviving the Congress in the Hindi belt.
He is an OBC and belongs to the Saini/Mali community that is present in sizeable numbers across North India and parts of central and Western India.
He is an astute politician and has a keen understanding of ground realities. He has managed to save the Rajasthan government despite several attempts to bring it down. He also foiled the BJP's bid of getting an additional Rajya Sabha seat in Rajasthan through Independent candidate Subhash Chandra.
He has an amicable personality and can by and large get along with most leaders. However, a section of the G-23 leadership are opposed to Gehlot. He was among their strongest critics after their letter to Sonia Gandhi.
Significantly, he has the trust and ear of both Rahul and Sonia Gandhi.
He had made a strong impression as Congress general secretary between 2017 and 2018. This period, in which Rahul Gandhi and Gehlot were running party affairs, was among the most successful phases for the party in the last eight years, with the Congress forming governments in Punjab, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and giving a good fight to the BJP in Gujarat.
Will Ashok Gehlot Agree To Quit as Rajasthan CM?
Gehlot has been offered the responsibility of taking over as Congress president in the past as well but he had declined mainly due to his unwillingness to move out of Rajasthan.
The precarious numbers of the Congress government in Rajasthan further made it necessary for Gehlot to remain in the state.
At 71, Gehlot feels that he still has a lot to contribute to Rajasthan before handing over the mantle to a younger leader.
However, sources indicate that this time Sonia Gandhi's 'request' to Gehlot during their meeting earlier this week may make it difficult for him to decline.
The Rajasthan question would still be there. If Gehlot does take up the presidentship, then Sachin Pilot is likely to take over as Rajasthan chief minister. Given Pilot's 'rebellion' in 2020, many in the Gehlot camp may not be comfortable working with him.
However, a few leaders in the Rajasthan Congress did say that moving to Delhi as party president won't be a bad deal for Gehlot. As it is, Rajasthan has a history of switching between Congress and BJP every five years, a series of controversies like the recent killing of a Dalit child in Jalore, the Udaipur killing and communal violence in places like Karauli, may make it even more difficult for the Congress to repeat its government in the state.
What Happens Next?
As mentioned earlier, whether Gehlot is taking up the responsibility or not may be clear in the next few days.
If he does agree, then we need to watch out for two possible fallouts:
What the G-23 would do: it is possible that they may challenge Gehlot.
What happens in Rajasthan and how smooth the transition of power to Sachin Pilot is.
If Gehlot's candidature falls through then the search for another non-Gandhi candidate may continue with names like Mallikarjun Kharge and Mukul Wasik being considered. For people in the Congress organisation, Wasnik is a favourite given his thorough knowledge of organisational matters.
Then of course, the clamour for Rahul Gandhi to take over as president is only likely to continue. It is taking place even as there was speculation around Gehlot with even the Rajasthan CM expressing his desire to see Rahul Gandhi return as president.