Amid the fight for the post of Congress president, the two contenders Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor are campaigning in full swing, but the footfall and response to their campaigns is revealing the party’s unspoken favorite: the all-but ‘official’ candidate Kharge. This despite the fact that the Gandhi family hasn’t publicly sided with either of the two candidates, but the overwhelming support garnered by Kharge in all the states he has so far visited, versus the lackluster response to Tharoor’s campaign is enough to point to the writing on the wall. The election is scheduled to take place on 17 October.
Both Kharge and Tharoor began their campaigns last week, visiting various states and addressing the AICC delegates who will ultimately cast their votes. But while the senior leadership of many states expressed their support for Kharge, the same wasn’t the case for Tharoor.
His own state Kerala’s party leadership has gone all out in support for Kharge, and a majority of the Congress delegates in the other states he is visiting are not even showing up for his campaign meetings.
Senior Leaders Back Kharge, Including From Tharoor's Home State
Tharoor is an MP from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram, but most of the top leadership of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) has backed Kharge.
K Sudhakaran, Congress Kerala president had said last week, “Kharge can engage with all generations of party workers. He has never compromised with the RSS and Sangh Parivar. Such a leader can identify the strengths and weaknesses of the party.” This was interpreted as an indirect snub to Tharoor, who has in the past praised PM Modi and the BJP on certain issues.
Leader of Opposition in Kerala VD Satheeshan and senior Kerala Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala have also backed Kharge.
Telangana Congress president A. Revanth Reddy last week called Kharge “Telangana Bidda” (son of Telangana) and recalled how the 80-year-old leader was brought up in Hyderabad; his family having played an important role in the fight against the Nizams’. Former Haryana Congress president Kumari Selja has also endorsed Kharge’s candidature, even saying that he should be unanimously elected by the party as its president.
That majority of the heavyweights are on Kharge’s side was evident already many of them showed up for his nomination papers filing process, from Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot to former Madhya Pradesh and Haryana CMs Digvijaya Singh and Bhupinder Hooda respectively, among others.
Tharoor tried to play down the lack of support he has received from the party leadership by saying that all votes—whether those of senior party members or juniors—carry the same weight. He also said that many leaders who are unable to back him publicly, have phoned him to express support privately.
“It is a secret ballot. No one will know who voted for whom. There is also no way of knowing which state PCC voted for which candidate as all the ballots would be mixed before being counted,” Tharoor said while interacting with media, seemingly urging the delegates to vote without any fear or threat.
Congress Delegates A No-Show At Tharoor's Meets
While it is one thing to not have seniors publicly support Tharoor, the leader was in for more embarrassment when delegates didn’t show up at the various legs of his campaign. In Tamil Nadu, where Congress has over 700 delegates, less than a dozen showed up for his meet. Party sources said that non-Congress members including students had to be brought in to compensate for the dearth of people in the hall where Tharoor was supposed to hold his meeting.
Then in Mumbai, many Congress leaders skipped his meet, when just a day before, several leaders had attended Kharge’s meet including Maharashtra Congress president Nana Patole and Congress legislature party leader Balasaheb Thorat.
Tharoor said that there seems to be a “deliberate attempt to spread the misinformation about my candidature terming it as a non-official candidature.”
“The wrong impression should not be created. However, I am confident I to get many delegate votes in this election,” he added.
Party sources said that there is an assumption being made by the members at large that supporting Tharoor would be seen as going against the Gandhis- a position no member wants to take.
Different Campaigning Styles
While Kharge has visited eight state's party headquarters, Tharoor has been to four so far. He cancelled his visit to Uttar Pradesh on 10 October, in light of former CM Mulayam Singh Yadav's demise.
Wherever Kharge is going, he is being received by a packed headquarters, with delegates pouring in to listen to him talk.
Albeit delegates aren't showing up in huge numbers at Tharoor's meets, the media-savvy leader has spent the last few days holding multiple townhalls and press meets- interacting with inquisitive students and others, ensuring that the coverage of his campaign remains top-tier.
Kharge is expected to visit many more states, while Tharoor's campaign strategy is likely to be one that involves sticking to interviews to national and local channels, to increase his wider appeal and dispel any notions of a party bias against him.
Tharoor Irked At Potential Violation Of Election Guidelines
Party sources said that the public support issued by many senior leaders has also irked Tharoor, and his team has alerted the party’s Chief Election Authority (CEA) about the same.
The CEA had issued a detailed set of guidelines last week, where it clarified that no party post-holders should campaign for any of the contenders, as it would be a sign of a conflict of interest. The notification had said:
“AICC general secretaries/ in charges, secretaries/ joint secretaries, PCC presidents, CLP leaders, heads of frontal organisations, chiefs of departments/ cells and all official spokespersons shall not campaign for or against contesting candidates. If they wish to support any candidate they must first resign from their organisational post, after that they can participate in the campaign process.”
With the top party leaders siding with Kharge, there could potentially have been a violation of this guideline. However, it seems unlikely that Tharoor will register any official complaint with the CEA, as it could be seen as too confrontational.
Gandhis Maintaining Distance From Both Contenders
The Congress leadership, on its part, has reiterated that the party elections will be ‘free and fair’. Sources said that to underscore this point of ‘neutrality’ of the Gandhis, Kharge was asked to stay away from the Bharat Jodo Yatra currently canvassing through his home state of Karnataka.
Moreover, in a press conference, when Rahul Gandhi was asked about the possibility that the elected president may just be ‘remote-controlled’ by the Gandhi family, he dismissed the speculation.
"I don't think either of them is going to be a remote-control president, and frankly, this tone is insulting for both of them,” Gandhi said.
"Both the people who are standing (for the elections) have a perspective and are people of stature and understanding,” he added.