OPN Tharoor Gehlot
All eyes are on Shashi Tharoor and Ashok Gehlot, who have emerged as probables for Congress president in case Rahul Gandhi declines post Image Credit: Supplied

In India, Shashi Tharoor, senior Congress leader, has gotten “permission” from Sonia Gandhi, interim Congress president to contest the election for Congress president. This is a key political development.

Tharoor was a quiet member of the G-23 — the group of Congress dissenters who wanted leadership changes and who in protest against the Gandhi family kept firing off letters. That group is now scattered far and wide. Two of its founders, Kapil Sibal and Ghulam Nabi Azad, have quit the party, heaping calumny on the Gandhi family.

Tharoor however, has never publicly attacked the Gandhis. He was drafted into active politics by Sonia Gandhi after a distinguished career at the United Nations. Tharoor has been a member of the Lok Sabha (lower house of India’s parliament) from Thiruvanthpuram in Kerala since 2009.

Hay Festival Abu Dhabi Shashi Tharoor 2-1582795017267
Shashi Tharoor has a massive social networking base with more than 8 million followers on Twitter Image Credit: Supplied

Madam’s blessings

Last evening Tharoor met Sonia Gandhi just after she returned from abroad. High level sources told Gulf News that Gandhi emphasised that she was not favouring any particularly candidate but wanted a free and fair contest.

Gandhi added that Tharoor did not require any permission from her to contest in the party elections, which would be conducted in a transparent fashion.

Tharoor throwing his hat in the ring comes in the wake of two developments. The first — the Gandhi family trying to convince Ashok Gehlot, Rajasthan Chief Minister to become the Congress president as a non-Gandhi candidate. The second — Congress units in Rajasthan and other states passing resolutions asking for Rahul Gandhi to take the mantle of Congress president again.

Gandhi, who is currently in the midst of his Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March), had said at the beginning that he had decided on a particular course of action on the top job in Congress and would go public at the right time.

Sources told Gulf News that Gandhi had been palpably reluctant to don the mantle again after he quit as Congress president, taking responsibility for the 2019 defeat in general elections. Significantly, Gandhi has not let go off the party decision making, taking most of the calls, which are endorsed by Sonia Gandhi.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot
A quintessential Congressman, Ashok Gehlot's grassroots experience is unmatched Image Credit: ANI

In comes the organiser

Gehlot, who publicly says he is reluctant to be president, is not quite as reluctant as he makes it out to be. A shrewd leader, he knows that public reluctance to accept any job is a virtue in the Congress party.

Sources close to him say that Gehlot is prepared to take the job which also underlines the high opinion the Congress High Command — Gandhi family — have of him. Gehlot worked closely with Rahul Gandhi in the 2017 Gujarat elections, where the Congress gave the ruling BJP a real scare.

Gehlot is an excellent organiser and has long standing relationships with India Inc to get critical funds for the party, which is completely broke. After Ahmed Patel, long-term Congress treasurer, passed away after a bout of Covid, the Congress has barely done any fund raising.

Gehlot does not want to give up the Chief Minister’s office to his party colleague and rival Sachin Pilot and he brought up the matter with Gandhi, who told him that she would take a call.

With Tharoor in the contest, Gehlot contesting against him is a near certainty. Tharoor would in a way represent the G-23 and Gehlot, the family. Rahul Gandhi would be the wild card as both leaders would happily make way for him.

Family vs G-23

Unlike other G-23 members, some of whom publicly gloat at party travails while being in the party, Tharoor has been discreet. He has never made any personal attacks on the Gandhi family and only raised matters which could relate to inner party democracy. Clearly his years as a diplomat stand him in good stead.

Tharoor is an enormously popular writer and public speaker with a large body of work. He is extremely hard working, keeping to a punishing schedule.

Whether he can bring the same energy to the party is the big question. Also Tharoor had a lateral entry into the Congress and has little relationship with the Congress organisation and party workers.

Gehlot scores on this aspect as he has a warm personal equation with most leaders and is liked by party workers. If the Gandhi family throw their weight behind Gehlot, it would barely be a contest and the results will be a foregone conclusion.

Tharoor’s entry makes it both democratic and interesting. Watch this space.