With a contest for the Congress president’s post almost certain, history beckons the party as it would be the fourth time since Independence that polling would decide who would lead it. Also, with Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra deciding not to be in the running for the party president’s post, a non-Gandhi would be at the helm after over 24 years.
The Congress is set to see a contest for the post of party chief with Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who has announced his candidature, expected to take on Shashi Tharoor who has also made his intentions clear by getting the nomination forms collected on Saturday.
The Congress has asserted that its internal democracy has no parallel in any other party and it is the only one to have a central election authority for organisational polls.
Asked about the significance of the polls this time, Congress general secretary in-charge communications Jairam Ramesh said, “Speaking for myself, I am a firm believer in the Kamraj model of consensus but if elections are inevitable, the process has been announced, we are the only political party to have this process, and if elections are needed, they will be held on October 17.”
“The significance of it lies in the fact that the Congress party is the only party to have this system. We have provision for elections and we are the only party to set up an independent election authority to ensure free and fair organisational elections including to the post of Congress president,” Ramesh told PTI.
Recalling the 1950 election to the post of Congress president, Ramesh said then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s candidate Acharya Kripalani lost to Purushottam Das Tandon. He also recalled how Mahatma Gandhi’s candidate for Congress presidency P Sitaramayya had lost to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in the pre-Independence era in 1939.
So on those two occasions the official candidates had lost, he said.
“We know two candidates are likely, Mr Gehlot has announced that he is contesting and Mr Tharoor has certainly indicated his intention, so obviously there will be an election on October 17,” Ramesh said. He, however, asserted that the Congress’ greatest contribution to Indian politics is the idea of consensus.
It was way back in 1950 that the Congress president polls were contested between Tandon and Kripalani. Surprisingly, Tandon, seen as a Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel loyalist, had won the contest back then trumping the PM’s choice. Tandon had won reportedly polling 1,306 votes against Kripalani’s 1,092 votes. The next election that needed a contest came 47 years later in 1997 when Sitaram Kesri, who squared off in a triangular contest with Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot.
Except for Maharashtra and parts of Uttar Pradesh, all state Congress units had backed Kesri. He had posted a landslide victory getting 6,224 delegates’ votes against Pawar’s 882 and Pilot’s 354.
The third contest came in 2000 and this was the only time a Gandhi was challenged in elections with Jitendra Prasada taking on Sonia Gandhi. Prasada suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Sonia Gandhi who garnered over 7,400 votes, while Prasada reportedly polled a paltry 94.
The upcoming polls would certainly be historic as the new president would replace Sonia Gandhi, the longest-serving party president who has been at the helm since 1998, barring the two years between 2017 and 2019 when Rahul Gandhi took over.
Also, the party will have its first non-Gandhi president after over 24 years.
Talking about the current election process which is underway, Congress chronicler and political observer Rasheed Kidwai said the polls this time have the potential of being both unprecedented and historical because the established Congress leadership of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi is not in the fray and will be sort of supervising the polls.
“What remains to be seen though is whether they would remain neutral or there would be some informal messaging in support of Gehlot,” Kidwai told PTI.
He said the odds are stacked against Tharoor as it is an intra-party election and the great Indian middle class is not voting whose “darling” the Thiruvananthapuram MP has become.
In the post-Independence era, a person from the Gandhi family has been at the helm of the party for about 40 years in total.
After Independence, the party has been led by 16 people so far, of which five have been presidents from the Gandhi family. In 1947, Acharya Kriplani was the president after which Sitarammya was party chief from 1948-49. In 1950, Tandon became chief following which Nehru served as the party chief between 1951 and 1955. Nehru left the post of Congress president in 1955 and UN Dhebar took over the reins of the party.
Indira Gandhi was the Congress president in 1959, followed by N S Reddy who remained at the helm till 1963. K Kamraj was president of the Congress in 1964-67, while S Nijalingappa was the Congress president in 1968-69. Jagjivan Ram became the Congress president in 1970-71 and then Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma was the Congress president from 1972-74. Devkant Barua was the Congress president from 1975-77. Indira Gandhi was again the Congress president from 1978-1984.
From 1985 to 1991 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv Gandhi was the Congress president. Between 1992 and 1996, P V Narasimha Rao was the Congress president.
Kesri assumed the presidency after that and was replaced by Sonia Gandhi in 1998. She remained at the helm till 2017, when Rahul Gandhi became president. Sonia Gandhi returned as interim chief in 2019 after Rahul Gandhi resigned following the Lok Sabha polls debacle.