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Congress President Election: Is There a 3rd Candidate Besides Singh & Tharoor?

Congress treasurer Pawan Bansal collecting nomination forms sparked speculation as to who these forms were for.

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Two events sparked speculation that the contest for the Congress president's post may go beyond the two known aspirants - Digvijaya Singh and Shashi Tharoor.

The first was when Congress treasurer Pawan Bansal collected nomination forms. And the second happened late evening on Thursday, 29 September - a meeting of some of the erstwhile group of 23 leaders who wrote a letter of alleged dissent to Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

The meeting took place at Anand Sharma's residence and included Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan and Manish Tewari, besides Sharma himself.

While Bansal's act indicated that there could be a pro-Gandhi family candidate entering the fray, the partial G-23 meeting indicated that one of the letter writers - most probably Bhupinder Singh Hooda or Prithviraj Chavan - would thrown his hat in the ring.

KN Tripathi, a former Congress MLA in Jharkhand, has also purchased the forms. But he isn't being seen as a serious contender.

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Bansal, however, clarified that he had collected the forms on the behalf of Chandigarh Congress.

"There was a mistake five years ago when forms submitted by Chandigarh Congress were rejected. I wanted to ensure that no nomination filed by us is rejected. So I collected the forms and handed them over to the local Congress."
Pawan Kumar Bansal, Congress treasurer

However, this still doesn't answer the question – who were the forms for? So here's what we know and what we don't know.

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What We Know

1. Bansal's Act Is Important

  • Bansal maintains that he had no one in mind when he collected the forms. However, he is is the treasurer of the Congress party and one of the most trusted functionaries of interim party president Sonia Gandhi.

  • It is highly unlikely that Bansal would do something without the clearance of the party high command.

  • Therefore, in all likelihood, there could be a nominee in addition to Digvijaya Singh and Shashi Tharoor.

2. High Command Is Unsure, Exploring

  • As of now the high command hasn't decided on supporting any candidate, be it Digvijaya Singh, Shashi Tharoor or someone else. Ashok Gehlot would have been the preferred nominee but after the Rajasthan fiasco, he is out of the race and has lost the leadership's trust to a significant extent.

  • But due to the last-minute crisis, the party leadership couldn't figure out an alternative. Kamal Nath refused to leave his job as Madhya Pradesh Congress chief as he sees a chance of becoming CM again after next year's elections.

  • There are other choices. More on that later.

3. G-23 Weighing Its Options

  • The late evening meeting between the G-23 leaders indicate that they are ideating on either joining the race.

  • Reports indicate that the leaders are trying to convince Bhupinder Singh Hooda to file his nomination. The other option being explored is Prithviraj Chavan.

  • Apparently, the group also considered tactically backing Shashi Tharoor but a few of them felt that they needed a leader with a strong base to have a decent chance. Bhupinder Hooda would be the best bet by that yardstick.

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4. Digvijaya Singh and Shashi Tharoor Not the High Command's Original Choices

Digvijaya Singh and Shashi Tharoor are both contesting out of their own ambitions. They haven't been asked to contest the way Ashok Gehlot was by the high command.

Now that Ashok Gehlot is out of the equation due to the fiasco in Rajasthan, the high command was forced to look for new options.

Though the high command has said it won't support any candidate, the Congress has a history of having candidates around whom there is a pre-decided consensus.

Singh many be a slightly different case from Tharoor as the latter was part of the G-23.

In contrast, the former Madhya Pradesh CM enjoys a better equation with the party high command and has been given important responsibilities, such as in-charge of the ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra.

Given a choice between the two, the high command may lean more towards Singh. Even if it doesn't, many loyalists would go in that direction. However, if there is a third candidate, a lot would change.

If Bhupinder Hooda or another G-23 candidate comes, then it is possible that the high command would tacitly back Digvijaya Singh or Singh would withdraw in favour of a pro-Gandhi candidate. But that would be clearer on 8 October, the last day for withdrawing nominations

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5. Not Just a Third, More Candidates Are Being Explored

"People are too focused on 30 September. They are forgetting another date – 8 October, the last day for withdrawal of nominations. It is possible that multiple candidates may file their nominations on Friday but the real preference would be clear by the 8th," a party source told The Quint.

This adds up with the collection of forms by Bansal. It is possible that a number of loyalist leaders could file their nominations only to withdraw later.

But why is this being done?

Party sources say this may be to intimidate anyone trying to create a disruption. It is a way of conveying a message to anyone who thinks there is vacuum and confusion following the Gehlot fiasco and it can be taken advantage of.

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What We Don't Know

As of now, we don't know who exactly the third or fourth candidate would be or if at all there will be more than two candidates. A number of names are doing the rounds:

  • Mallikarjun Kharge

  • Mukul Wasnik

  • Pawan Bansal

  • Kumari Selja

  • KC Venugopal

Each of these leaders have very clear advantages and disadvantages.

  • Mukul Wasnik is a solid organisational person with a near encyclopaedic knowledge of the party machinery. He knows thousands of party workers across India by their first names. But he too was part of the G-23 signatories.

  • Kharge is the senior-most of the lot and is already leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.

  • He also happens to come from Karnataka, which goes to polls in mid next year.

  • However, he is already 80 and age isn't on his side.

  • Pawan Bansal is another leader who the party high command has immense trust on. He is known to be competent and methodical in his work style.

  • Kumari Selja: She is one of the party's most important Dalit faces in North India and definitely the biggest one in Haryana. She has consistently been loyal to the party leadership. However, she has a negative equation with the Hoodas who dominate party affairs in Haryana.

  • KC Venugopal is seen as too junior and also too close to Rahul Gandhi. If he becomes president, it will spark accusations of an unofficial takeover by Team Rahul and also reinforce allegations of Kerala lobby dominating. There has also been some criticism of his performance on organisational matters.

  • Except Kharge and to some extent Wasnik, the others would be lightweights organisationally. Kharge, Wasnik and Selja all happen to be Dalits as well. If any of them becomes party chief, they would be the first Dalit to become Congress president in 50 years, the last one being Jagjivan Ram in 1970.

Then we also don't know if the G-23 group will field Hooda or Chavan or tactically back Tharoor.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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