Amid growing support from senior party colleagues, Mallikarjun Kharge, 80, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, who filed his nomination on Friday for the election of the Congress President, emerged as the frontrunner with the apparent backing by interim President Sonia Gandhi after he met her late on Thursday.
Though he comes from a Scheduled Caste, Kharge hates the word ‘Dalit’ appended to him as he says he lost the race for the Karnataka Chief Minister’s post in 2013 only because he is a Dalit.
A lawyer by training, Kharge worked as a trade union leader for many years before entering politics.
Former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijaya Singh, 75, was quick to pull out of the race. He is tipped to take over as Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha from Kharge.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, 71, who was the prime contender until a mass revolt in his support by MLAs in his state, was the first to reach Kharge's residence to second his nomination.
Friday being the last day to file nominations, the decisive settlement of the question of the leadership in Rajasthan was pushed to the background at least until Saturday when Sonia Gandhi may announce her decision.
Gehlot told reporters after meeting Kharge at his residence at 10, Rajaji Marg that all senior leaders have decided to back Kharge as they have decided on his candidature together.
He appealed to everyone to support Kharge to rebuild the party after the presidential election, noting that “even Tharoor has said it is a friendly match and after the elections, the Congress will be the winner”.
He said Kharge is an experienced leader who had won elections a dozen times. “He has experience at both the state and national level,” he added. He evaded a direct response as in the past when asked whether he would be quitting as the Chief Minister.
Gehlot sang the same old song when he said: “I have held several positions for the past 50 years with the blessings of the Gandhi family. Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and now Sonia Gandhi have showered their blessings on me. For me, it is not the position that matters, but what matters is how to strengthen the party.”
It is now a straight fight between Kharge and Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha member Shashi Tharoor, 66, who was part of the Group of 23 senior MPs writing to Sonia Gandhi to revamp the party and stop the backseat driving by her son and former Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
Former Jharkhand minister KN Tripathi also filed his nomination papers on Friday but hinted that he would withdraw in support of Kharge.
Tharoor described the fight as between change, represented by him, and the status quo symbolised by Kharge. If elected, he promised to decentralise the party to make the high command powerless and let the party grow at the state and district levels without the culture of nominations from the top.
A career official of the United Nations, Tharoor quit in 2006 after losing the election of secretary general to Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea. A graduate from Delhi's St Stephen's College in 1975, he rose to the rank of undersecretary-general for communication in the UN in 2001. The death of his second wife Sunanda Pushkar in a Delhi hotel in 2014 continues to haunt him in a pending court case.
Surrounded by senior party colleagues, Kharge filed his nomination an hour after Tharoor. Digvijaya Singh, who appeared the frontrunner until Kharge emerged as the contender, quickly stepped out to be his proposer. “I told Kharge saheb that I stand by him and can't even think of contesting against him,” he said. Tharoor said Kharge is Bhishma Pitamah for him, but he won't opt out of the election.
Those who came forward to second Kharge's nomination included Ambika Soni, Pawan Bansal, Anand Sharma, Mukul Wasnik, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan, Manish Tewari and Rajeev Shukla. Anand Sharma and Tewari were part of the G-23 rebel group but they preferred not to join Tharoor when he came to file his papers.
Gehlot, Pilot or someone else?
Although Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has apologized to Congress president Sonia Gandhi for the antics of his MLAs on Sunday, it is unclear whether his apology has been accepted. It is also yet to be decided whether he will remain the Chief Minister or the high command will place its bets on arch rival Sachin Pilot or a fresh face. P13