CHENNAI: The Congress has finally gotten down to the business of conducting an election for the post of President, but only after a frightful mess that was very much of its own making. There is a semblance of a contest now with two Congressmen – the octogenarian Mallikarjun Kharge and relatively youthful Shashi Tharoor – but the entire election exercise has been exposed as stage managed – and very badly at that.
The hopes that this election would set in order some of the issues the party faces has been completely belied. Events over the last few days have clearly shown that while the Gandhi family does not want to take formal charge of the party, they want to push a candidate of their choice. Initially, that choice was Ashok Gehlot who, on paper, was not a bad candidate at all. He ticked many of the boxes – seniority, electoral success, political savvy, and experience in administrative matters. But the ruling abjectly failed to take care of attendant matters – particularly, who would succeed him as Rajasthan Chief Minister – before backing him for the job. The result: a revolt among Gehlot loyalists, who make up the majority of Congress MLAs, who fiercely opposed the High Command’s decision to make Sachin Pilot the next Chief Minister.
The political drama reflects extremely poorly on Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, who misread a number of things – their power to ram through a decision, the temperament of Ashok Gehlot, and the difficulties in getting the requisite backing for Sachin Pilot. Having persuaded Gehlot to apologise (ostensibly for the misdemeanour of his supporters), the next step was to find another camp follower – who turned out to be the uncharismatic and ageing Kharge, after another loyalist Digvijay Singh was persuaded to file and then withdraw his papers.
With the backing of the Gandhis, Kharge appears set to be the new President. It will be interesting to see how many votes Tharoor gets – if nothing else, it may reflect the unease about the Gandhis continuing to control the party by remote. Tharoor promises change and reform, but even members of the G23, a group he was associated with, have not come out in full support of him.
The big question, and one that goes beyond this election, is the future of Ashok Gehlot. Will the Gandhis punish him for not toeing their line? Will they continue to push for Sachin Pilot to be Chief Minister? Given that Gehlot clearly carries the majority, it seems fairly clear that any attempt to meddle in Rajasthan’s affairs at this time will be counter-productive.
With a looming Assembly election, the last thing that the Congress wants is to create a greater mess in Rajasthan. The issue of course is whether the Gandhis are listening. And the answer is they are probably not.