Ashok Gehlot, the next Congress president? Why Rajasthan chief minister’s elevation isn’t the change the party needs

Ashok Gehlot's long association with the Gandhi family and his close ties to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi may make him the top contender for the post of Congress chief. This means he could be reduced to a 'puppet' as the BJP alleges

FP Explainers September 22, 2022 10:00:34 IST
Ashok Gehlot, the next Congress president? Why Rajasthan chief minister’s elevation isn’t the change the party needs

Ashok Gehlot, 71, has long been a loyalist of the Gandhi family and Sonia Gandhi has consulted with him on various party issues. PTI

The Congress presidential polls is quickly becoming the hottest topic — with politicians and the public alike looking to see if the Grand Old Party will see a non-Gandhi president for the first time in 20 years.

The contest has narrowed down to two people — Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Thiruvanathapuram MP Shashi Tharoor. While many state units have passed resolutions backing Rahul Gandhi’s return as president, the young Gandhi, who is busy with the Bharat Jodo Yatra, has remained determined in his refusal to take up the responsibility.

With just days before the nomination window shuts, the developments in the contest are coming in fast and furious. We decode what’s going on and how Ashok Gehlot’s promotion may not be as radical as it seems.

Gehlot meets Sonia

On Wednesday, Rajasthan’s Ashok Gehlot met Congress chief Sonia Gandhi at her 10 Janpath residence for nearly two hours. Congress general secretary KC Venugopal and treasurer Pawan Kumar Bansal were also reportedly present.

While he didn’t reveal the exact details of his meeting with the Congress chief, Gehlot told reporters later that he could throw his hat in the ring for the Congress presidential poll, if the party people wish so and he would fulfil any responsibility given to him.

However, he also said he will make a last-ditch effort to convince Rahul Gandhi to take up the party president’s post.

Gehlot said he will take decisions with which the Congress is strengthened. “The party and the high-command have given me everything. I have been on posts for 40-50 years. For me, no post is important, I will fulfil any responsibility given to me,” he was quoted as saying by an Indian Express report.

Gehlot a sweeping change for Congress?

With Ashok Gehlot and Shashi Tharoor being considered the contenders for the upcoming Congress presidential polls — to be held on 17 October — this will be the first time that a non-Gandhi would take up the mantle in more than two decades.

Also read: Dhoti pulled, locked in bathroom: How Sonia Gandhi ‘threw to the footpath’ Congress’ last non-Gandhi president

Many have observed that this is the kind of change that the Congress requires, at a time when their political future is in complete doldrums.

However, the ascension of Ashok Gehlot, who is being seen as the Gandhis’ favourite for the top post, wouldn’t be the change that the party seeks.

Amarinder Singh, the former Punjab chief minister who switched to the Bharatiya Janata Party on Monday, told News18 that the Rajasthan chief minister’s elevation to party president would benefit those who wanted him there rather the party itself.

“Good for whom? The Congress or… those who want him to be the president,” said Amarinder Singh when asked if Gehlot was a good choice.

When further asked that if Gehlot became president would he control the party, the former chief minister, said: “The answer lies in your question only. When questions are being raised about the actual authority of the president, it is obvious who will be running the show.”

It is a well-known fact that 71-year-old Ashok Gehlot has long been a loyalist to the Gandhi family. He is consulted by both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi on crucial matters and many believe that if he became chief he would pose no threat to the Family.

The Rajasthan chief minister has been in the party for around five decades, has vast experience in managing organisation and elections and is a mass leader. A former Union minister, Gehlot has through the ranks in the party and has experience in organisation-building. In fact, Gehlot was also instrumental in the party’s superlative performance in the Assembly polls in Gujarat — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state — in 2017. He has been made election observer for the Gujarat Assembly polls scheduled later this year.

Moreover, Gehlot is an OBC leader and doesn’t come from any political dynasty. While almost all political parties have been trying to woo the OBC vote bank — a swinging factor in polls — the Congress often faces criticism for its obsession with the Gandhi dynasty. Gehlot as the Congress president will be a strong reply to those who dub the Congress as a one-family party.

However, Gehlot’s experience and long stay with the Congress can also be disadvantageous. Political pundits argue that the Rajasthan chief minister could be reluctant to think out of the box. Also, owing to his close ties with the Gandhis, would make many wonder if he would continue the present system.

Tharoor prepares for contest

In the meantime, Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor has begun the groundwork for filing his nomination papers. After meeting Sonia Gandhi on Tuesday, he met Madhusudan Mistry, chairman of the Congress Central Election Authority, at the AICC headquarters and discussed election rules and procedures including filing of nomination and campaigning. He also had a look at the electoral roll of around 9,000 PCC delegates who will vote in the election.

Confirming the same, Madhusudan Mistry told news agency ANI, “We answered all his queries regarding Congress presidential election. We explained to him about electoral rule, number of agents and their roles, discussed how to fill out the form for election.”

Tharoor, a member of the G-23 grouping who had asked for organisational reforms and a full time, visible leadership of the party in 2020, threw his hat into the ring and is considered by many as a whiff of fresh air that the Congress desperately needs.

The Thiruvananathapuram MP, who enjoys a following among the youth and the vastly-educated middle class, could bring in new ideas for the party and also introduce a global outlook, owing to his former career as a diplomat.

With inputs from agencies

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