Column | Incoming Congress president has his work cut out as Gandhis step back

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor

Strong winds of change have begun to blow through Congress after a quarter century with the announcement of the election for the top post in the party.

Interim President Sonia Gandhi has made it clear to both Ashok Gehlot and Shashi Tharoor, the two certain candidates in the poll so far, that neither she nor her two children — Rahul and Priyanka — will be in the fray.

The upcoming contest is the first in the last 25 years when the party presidency was held by either Sonia or Rahul. The willingness to hold the election has come as a surprise for many party leaders, especially after Rahul commenced the ambitious cross-country march, Bharat Jodo Yatra.

But the family leadership has been affected by successive Lok Sabha defeats to BJP stalwart Narendra Modi and later the revolt of senior leaders led by veterans Ghulam Nabi Azad and Kapil Sibal who left the party this year. The family trio has decided not to contest for the party chief's post despite the clamour by loyal senior leaders and Rahul backers. 

On Sonia and Rahul's prodding, Gehlot is now willing to give up Rajasthan chief minister's post. He is seen as likely to take control of the party. This is an opportunity for senior leader Sachin Pilot who has been keen to get the chief minister's post since he led the state unit in the last assembly elections. Gehlot and Pilot are not on speaking terms and the former wants a loyalist to take charge in Jaipur.

While Gehlot has rich experience as Youth Congress leader, party general secretary in charge of the organisation, Union minister and state chief minister, Tharoor who has been a Member of Parliament for three terms and a Union minister brings enormous visibility both in India and abroad. But Gehlot is a true organisation man with proven networking skills.

Sonia is unlikely to engage in significant party activities as the new chief takes charge, but Rahul has made it clear that even if he is not the President, he will available to help the party during a crisis. As the Gandhis step back from the helm, it has to be seen how the new president will steer the party, especially in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Once again the party may head for turbulence if the new president fails to take full charge. He has to manage the Pradesh Congress Committee presidents, Congress Legislature Party leaders and the office-bearers of the All-India Congress Committee. The loyalists and dissidents too have to be handled with tact and firmness to avoid departures to other parties as BJP would like to lure key leaders to embarrass the new leadership. Another concern would be the leaders of key Congress allies across states.

It won't be a bed of roses for the incoming Congress president.

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