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With Rahul opting out

BY S VENKAT NARAYAN   
Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI, September 24: Gandhi family loyalist and Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is likely to be the next President of the Congress Party. But he will have to step down as chief minister on Rahul Gandhi’s insistence on one-man-one-post policy. Gehlot, seen as the nominee of Gandhis, announced his decision to enter the fray while acquiescing to the insistence to quit his position in Jaipu

Gehlot had on Wednesday declared his intent to continue as Rajasthan CM even if he was elected as Congress chief. But he gave up his insistence after Rahul Gandhi declared that the new party chief will have to adhere to the “one man one post” principle.

“What we decided in Udaipur is a commitment of the Congress. So, I expect that the commitment will be maintained,” said Rahul Gandhi. Immediately afterwards, Gehlot termed Rahul’s position “correct,” and said that no Congress president has ever been a chief minister.

The development on the sensitive issue came hours after Congress election authority chairman Madhusudan Mistry on Thursday morning issued the much-awaited notification to announce the start of the election process, which is likely to witness a contest after 22 years.

The Congress is India’s oldest political party, founded in 1885. The Gandhi family had dominated the party since 1921, when Jawaharlal Nehru’s father Motilal Nehru became its President. Since then, six members of the country’s most famous political dynasty had been Congress Presidents for a total of 45 years: Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Three of them ruled India as Prime Ministers since the country became independent in 1947: Nehru, Indira and Rajiv.

Rajiv Gandhi was the last member of the family whose prime ministership ended 33 years ago in 1989. But the Gandhi family and the Congress became synonymous in Indian politics. Though the family has been out of power for over three decades, Sonia Gandhi controlled the party and the governments of Congress Party’s PV Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh. The party suffered humiliating defeats in parliamentary and state assembly polls since the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rode to power at the centre in 2014.

However, every fifth voter voted for the Congress in the 2019 general election. And the Gandhis continue to enjoy a pan-Indian recognition. Seen as the leadership’s choice and a frontrunner in the clash that may pit him against Kerala MP Shashi Tharoor, Gehlot joined Rahul for a few hours in the “Bharat Jodo Yatra” (Unify India Foot March) at Kochi in Kerala state like his political rival Sachin Pilot did on Wednesday.

 Gehlot had earlier announced that he will meet Rahul as part of his last-ditch attempt to convince him to take over the reins of the party.Gehlot said on Friday that Rahul Gandhi has made it clear that no one from the Gandhi family should become the party chief. He met with Rahul Gandhi in Kerala, where he joined his “Bharat Jodo Yatra” on Thursday evening.

“I requested him multiple times to accept everyone’s wish that he returns as Congress President. He told me he had decided that no one from the Gandhi family should become the next chief,” Gehlot told reporters.

“Rahul ji told me: ‘I know they want me to be chief and I respect their wish. But I have decided, for a reason, that a non-Gandhi should be the Congress president’,” he added.

Gehlot is believed to be the Gandhis’ leading choice for the role as the Congress prepares for its first non-Gandhi chief since 2000. The 71-year-old Congress veteran has been holding out, apparently because he is reluctant to give up the role of Chief Minister of Rajasthan. He had suggested that he could handle both responsibilities, but Rahul Gandhi shot it down.

“We have made a commitment in Udaipur, I expect that the commitment will be maintained,” Rahul Gandhi told reporters in Kochi on Thursday on the “one person, one post” rule adopted by the Congress earlier this year. The Gandhis, distancing themselves from the top post amid massive churning within and questions on their leadership following serial election defeats, have also refused to endorse any candidate.

While the outcome of a Gehlot vs Tharoor clash would be a foregone conclusion, the real drama lies in who will replace Gehlot in Jaipur. Gehlot told reporters: “Let us see what situation unfolds in Rajasthan, what decision the Congress leadership takes, what the MLAs think.”

Gehlot has an overwhelming support in the Rajasthan Congress legislature party. He may not be averse to quitting the CM’s post, and his claim about holding both the posts was likely a maximalist position to enable him to have a decisive say in picking his successor, who he wants should be his trusted individual over bete noire Sachin Pilot.

The names of assembly speaker C P Joshi, a multiple-term minister and a Brahmin minister are high on Gehlot’s list. A senior office-bearer said Pilot is a serious option in the list of probables. “The leadership will decide,” he said.

Sources said a discussion on Gehlot’s replacement is part of the presidential election, and is going on simultaneously — implying it may be finalized by the end of the election.Gehlot’s two-hour-long meeting with Congress Party’s Interim Chief Sonia Gandhi on Wednesday appears to have touched upon the ticklish issue, especially because of the presence of Pilot as an aspirant.

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