Over 9000 delegates will be voting for the next president of the Indian National Congress on Monday 17 October. Their choice is between Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge and three time MP from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, Shashi Tharoor.
The election has had its share of hits and misses for the Congress.
A Free and Fair Election (By and Large)
By most accounts the election seems to have been by and large free and fair. There has of course been criticism that Kharge is the 'unofficial' establishment nominee, having the support of the Gandhi family as well as most party stalwarts. Then there was Tharoor's comment of an unequal playing field and that a few state Congress units didn't cooperate with him.
But compared to other parties, Congress can still come out looking relatively more democratic. While the Congress election process was on, two important political parties chose their presidents - BJP president JP Nadda was given another term by PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah and Akhilesh Yadav got another term as the Samajwadi Party president. Neither of the two involved elections.
An Election and a Non-Gandhi President After Over 20 Years
An election is being held for the Congress president after a period of over 20 years, the last one being a rather unequal contest between Sonia Gandhi and Jitendra Prasada in 2000.
Irrespective of who wins between Kharge and Tharoor, the party will have its first non-Gandhi family president since 1999 when Sonia Gandhi had taken over after Sitaram Kesri's removal.
Both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi seem to have been very clear that they want someone from outside the family to be the president and they are now going to achieve that aim and answer their critics who allege that the family doesn't want to give up power.
The election seems to have strengthened unity in the party. Kharge got the support of much of the erstwhile G-23 members who are still in the Congress. Many of them even became his proposers.
Tharoor, also part of the G-23, has consistently been maintaining the need for party unity and saying that "the Congress will win irrespective of who wins".
The tone and tenor of the presidential election on one hand and the energy of the Bharat Jodo Yatra on the other bode well for the cause of unity in the party, especially after a recent spate of exits including senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad.
Both Candidates Have Their Advantages
Initial favourite Ashok Gehlot, would probably have been a better candidate, with a bigger mass following, chief ministerial experience and a connect in the Hindi heartland.
However, both Kharge and Tharoor also have their advantages. Kharge is a stalwart having being an MLA eight times, MP thrice and a minister at the state and central level. He is also an important Dalit face of the Congress and is known to be multilingual. His election as president could help the Congress in the crucial state of Karnataka, that goes to polls in the summer of 2023.
Tharoor, though nowhere as senior as Kharge, is a known public figure and media face for the Congress. He enjoys a considerable following among professionals and the urban middle class, besides his own base in Thiruvananthapuram.
Ashok Gehlot was initially said to have been the favourite to become the Congress president but that led to a fiasco within the Rajasthan government with key ministers gathering MLAs together, at a time whent they were supposed to meet the high command's representatives. Their opposition was with the prospect of Sachin Pilot replacing Gehlot as the CM.
That was seen as an act of rebellion and some accused Gehlot of being behind it.
In the entire episode the equation between the Congress high command and its seniormost regional leader seems to have been harmed. The new Congress president may decide whether nor not any action will be taken on the Rajasthan 'rebellion'.
Exercise Whose Importance Was Undermined By the Party Itself
Whoever wins, between Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor, will occupy a position held by stalwarts like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Jawaharlal Nerhu, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sarojini Naidu, K Kamaraj just to name a few.
But do the party leaders themselves understand the enormity of the position? Probably not.
Let's take the following cases:
Despite pleas by several party units, Rahul Gandhi refused to take up the job even though he clearly remains the main face of the party as evident from the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot preferred being the CM of Rajasthan for one more year than become the president of the party he has been part of for nearly half a century.
Kamal Nath refused to file his nomination and preferred being head of the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee over the national presidentship.
Sources say that Mukul Wasnik was also asked by the party leadership but he was reluctant. Bhupinder Singh Hooda was asked by a few of the G-23 leaders but he too refused.
Mallikarjun Kharge decided to file his nomination only after being convinced by several senior leaders.
Congress' communications in-charge Jairam Ramesh referred to the presidential election as a "side show".
Election Doesn't Provide a Roadmap for 2024
Ideally, a critical part of the election should have been on how the party plans to defeat the BJP in 2024. But neither of the two candidates provided a roadmap of how they plan to go about it. Tharoor at least had a manifesto, Kharge said the 'Udaipur declaration' would be his manifesto.
Curiously, the party has been saying that even the Bharat Jodo Yatra is also not aimed at 2024.
This is a bit strange that the two biggest exercises being conducted by the party, are not looking at 2024 in a very conscious manner.