The Congress has tentatively set the date to kick off the party’s presidential polls in the last week of August, The Quint has learnt. Congress' internal elections have consistently been delayed since the 2019 Lok Sabha election results, when Rahul Gandhi resigned as the party president and Sonia Gandhi took over as the interim president.
But in the 5-hour long Congress Working Committee (CWC) meet held last October, it was decided that the party will conduct the elections between August and September 2022.
As the date nears, there is growing anticipation over what Rahul Gandhi’s approach will be vis-à-vis the elections, and whether the party is looking to position him as the president once again.
Rahul Gandhi's Strategic Silence
All India Congress Committee (AICC) leaders said that while there have been appeals made to Rahul Gandhi by party members to reclaim the post of the president, the leader has largely maintained a stoic silence.
“He isn’t explicitly agreeing to this. Perhaps he is open to the prospect but does not want commit before time,” an AICC functionary said.
The hesitation in Gandhi expressly showing interest in the post may come from two reasons. One, lately Gandhi has reiterated multiple times that he is “not interested in power.”
“I was born in Centre of power but honestly, I don’t have interest in it,” Gandhi had said at an event in April this year.
And second, the leader might not want it to seem like he is jeopardising the ‘fair’ election process, by seeming too eager for it. “He is aware of the criticism that is thrown our (Congress’) way, that this is a dynastic party, that any kind of consensus reached here is a façade and only one family dictates everything ultimately. That might be making him more cautious,” the functionary added.
Leading Rallies, Protests And More
However, even with Rahul not officially announcing his interest in the party president’s post, a build-up of sorts placing him as the ‘obvious choice’ has already begun.
Last week, the Congress held massive protests against rising prices, with its top leaders including Gandhi hitting the roads and even getting detained by the Delhi police. Gandhi will also be leading the ‘Bharat Jodo’ (Unite India) yatra starting from 7 September.
The party has said it is going to organise yatras from "Kashmir to Kanyakumari" across 12 states and two Union Territories in 15 days and would cover a distance of 3,500 km.
Moreover, on Thursday, the Congress also announced it will organise a "Mehengai Chaupal" at all mandis and retail markets in all Vidhan Sabha constituencies from 17 to 23 August. This campaign will culminate in the party's "Mehengai pe halla bol" rally at New Delhi's Ramlila Maidan on 28 August.
While the party does organise such rallies from time to time, Rahul Gandhi doesn't always lead them or is present in them. The implied effect of this sudden burst of activity may be to position him as the next party president.
"There is more of Rahul we are witnessing in our deliberations, as well as on the field in our protests. This ought to re-energise the party cadre," another leader said.
A New Option
There is another option that Gandhi might be exploring—of taking on the role of a guide/mentor, instead of the party’s president. This will shield him and the party of the criticism that may come there way if a Gandhi family member is yet again chosen as the president.
“Creating a different post, that does not exactly scream power may be one way to ensure that he (Rahul) can continue to guide the party in a certain direction, without reinforcing the criticism of this being a one-family party,” a Congress leader said.
This would mean that other party leaders would have a chance to throw their hats in the ring for the contest of party president. Speculation of names ranging from of DK Shivakumar, to Mallikarjun Kharge have entered the party murmurs. “But one will have to wait and watch whether any of them will can actually go ahead and raise their hands for the party presidentship. The leader will have to be a true Congressi, a loyalist and a veteran. Even then everything ultimately depends on the call Rahul Gandhi takes in the matter,” the leader added.
The election process is likely to end by 20 September, if all goes as per plan and there aren't any more delays.
Membership Drive Ahead Of Internal Polls
The Congress party’s Central Election Authority (CEA) is the body authorised to conduct these internal polls. The body led an extensive membership drive, as part of which only those who have enrolled themselves would be eligible to cast their vote in the party polls. The cut off for enrolment was set as 15 April, and over 6 crore people had enrolled.
“We got some 2.6 crore enrolment done digitally, while over 3 crore was done via physical forms,” a member of the CEA said.
A membership app was created for the purpose of this digital enrolment, which was accessible only to party members. The members had to undergo a comprehensive verification process in the app to enroll themselves.
“This was done in order to keep our membership list as up to date as possible. The previous lists we had included many who are either no longer part of the party or have passed away. So this would ensure that we have an accurate list of people who will be eligible to cast their votes,” the CEA member added.
All members, including Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi had to enroll through this membership process in order to be eligible for voting.
X-Ray Of The Congress Party
The membership drive is also being overseen by the data analytics team, headed by Praveen Chakravarty.
The enrolment drive for the 5 states which went to polls in March—Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa—began late due to the election process.
Interestingly, the Congress got highest number of enrolments from South Indian states, followed by Maharashtra and Haryana. “More than half the members who enrolled were under the age of 40,” the source added.
Thus, besides helping the party update the membership repository, the process is also likely to help it gauge its organisational strength across states. The functionary described it as an "X-Ray of the party."
Moreover, the party is also incentivising ‘enrollers’-- meant to bring more people within the folds of the Congress. “So if an enroller is able to get over 50-60 members enrolled in their area, then they can contest internal elections to become state Congress office-bearers or AICC members who will then form the collegium who vote for the party president,” the functionary added.