Senior Congress leader and Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge addresses media after filing his nomination papers for the post of the party's President, at the party office, in New Delhi on Friday. Image Credit: ANI

Thiruvananthapuram/New Delhi: The last date of filing of nominations to the post of Congress President ended on Friday, and it is certain that the next party chief will be from south India, and after more than a quarter of a century.

P.V. Narashima Rao was the last one to have occupied this post from South India from 1992 to 1996 and now it will be a fight between party veteran Mallikarjun Kharge who hails from Karnataka and Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha member Shashi Tharoor.

Tharoor made it clear, soon after filing his papers, that he will not pull out of the race and has his own vision for the party which he will share with all delegates.

And with the Rajya Sabha veteran Kharge being the “official” candidate of the Nehru-Gandhi family, he is also not going to withdraw and this makes a contest when around 9,100 Congress voters will decide who among the two should be their chief.

The Congress is set to choose a person who is not a member of its dominant Nehru-Gandhi family as its next president as it struggles to recover before key upcoming elections.

Although the party has been led historically by the family, interim party president Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi, have decided to bring in a new face during a challenging time for the party, which has suffered crushing defeats in national and state elections since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party came to power in 2014.

Their choice fell on a trusted party leader, 80-year-old Mallikarjun Kharge from southern Karnataka state.

Kharge, a member of Parliament and a former minister of Railways, Labour and Employment, filed his nomination papers on Friday at the party headquarters in New Delhi. His main challenger will be Shashi Tharoor, 66, who spent nearly 30 years at the United Nations before joining the Congress party in 2009.

A little-known former Congress state minister from eastern Jharkhand state, K.N. Tripathi, also filed nomination papers and is a third candidate for the top party post, the Press Trust of India news agency said.

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor filing his nomination papers for the post of the party's President, at the party office, in New Delhi on Friday. Image Credit: ANI

If two contestants remain in the race after the October 8 deadline to withdraw nominations, 9,000 party delegates will vote on October 17 and the result will be announced October 19.

The filing of nominations papers is a major step toward ending the party’s struggle to find a new leader after dismal results in the 2019 national elections and Rahul Gandhi’s subsequent resignation as party president.

“I tried to convince Rahul Gandhi to accept the party members’ wish to assume the post of president, but he is sticking to his stand that no one from the Gandhi family will be in the race this time,’’ said Ashok Gehlot, a senior party official.

Rahul Gandhi’s family has produced three of India’s 15 prime ministers since independence, starting with his great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the country’s first. Two of them —his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and father, Rajiv Gandhi — were assassinated. The party governed India for more than 60 years after India gained independence from British colonialists in 1947.

Modi, the current prime minister, has denounced Congress’ dynastic politics. The party has been led by non-family members in the past, but Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have been at the helm of party affairs since 1998.

“The party president is a key post, but never more than now after two general election losses and a vote base at 18 per cent — half that of the ruling Hindu nationalist party,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a professor of history and environmental studies at Ashoka University. “Yet this is the single largest opposition party by far with a history of comebacks, as in 1980, 1991 and 2004.”

“The focus is on who, but the crisis is as much of ideas. It is about how to combine bread-butter politics with facing up to the new nationalism of the ruling party,’’ Rangarajan said.

Critics describe key leaders leaving the Congress party — including veteran Ghulam Nabi Azad, who announced his own political party in September — as a revolt against the Nehru-Gandhi family’s domination.

In his resignation letter to Sonia Gandhi, who has been serving as interim party president, Azad said that “the entire consultative mechanism was demolished by Rahul Gandhi when he took over as Congress vice president in 2013.”

He lamented that “all senior and experienced leaders were sidelined, and a new coterie of inexperienced sycophants started running the affairs of the party.”

Rahul is on a 3,500-kilometer (2,185-mile) walking tour of Indian cities, towns and villages over the next five months as he attempts to rejuvenate the party and win the people’s support ahead of key state legislature elections in Himachal Pradesh state and Modi’s home state of Gujarat. The results are likely to impact the country’s next national elections, due in 2024.