The Congress presidential election got an exciting twist on Monday when Shashi Tharoor got a 'no-objection' from party president Sonia Gandhi to contest the October 17 poll. However, with Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot stepping in after failing in his last-minute bid to convince Rahul Gandhi to take on the reins, it appears that the Gandhi loyalist has emerged a clear favourite for the October 17 election.
Sonia dispelled the notion that no "official candidate" would exist while indicating that anyone can contest. She announced that she would stay "neutral" in the election and welcomed the idea of more candidates entering the fray. While the party opened up to democracy in electing the new president, Tharoor knew why he needed Sonia's clearance.
A 'go ahead' from her is a huge positive for the diplomat-turned-politician because no matter Sonia's diplomacy, a candidate with no endorsement from the Gandhis cannot survive the contest. So by getting the nod, Tharoor has taken the first step in the right direction.
Gehlot, the most trusted lieutenant of the Gandhis, appears a forerunner for now. Still, his elevation could also be a dilemma for the party in Rajasthan, which is going to the polls next year. The high command relies heavily on the 71-year-old veteran to steer the party through. His astute political sense has been a thorn in the flesh for the BJP, having even diffused Operation Lotus once. However, Gehlot is reluctant to relinquish the CM's chair, putting the high command in another dilemma.
The options before the Congress could be limited here: Either engage Gehlot in a dual role of the CM of Rajasthan and the party position as a working president. Or Sachin Pilot can be elevated to take on the chief ministership of Rajasthan, which he would be more than willing, while Gehlot focuses on rebuilding the party across India.
Congress has taken a giant leap by opening up its presidential election, and the party is set to make a fresh beginning as things stand. The focus of Rahul Gandhi right now is his 'Bharat Jodo Yatra', which has been the cynosure of all political eyes as he walks through 12 states over 150 days. While this campaign revolves around uniting India, Congress needs a president that unites factions within, a face that leads the party into the future. The Congress needs a new direction if it has to bounce back ahead of the 2024 election, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been eyeing.
The presidential election will take care of the democracy in the party, but given the party setup, one cannot expect sweeping changes independent of the Gandhis. The new president will have a primary task at hand of not only following the legacy of the Gandhis but becoming the all-important glue that holds the sparring sections of the party together.