If there was cynicism around the last-minute projection on Friday of the 80-year-old Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, as the “official” candidate for the Congress President’s election, then there was amusement at the ingenuity of Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor, who filed his nomination and unveiled a manifesto for the “reinvention” of the grand old party.

“Mrs (Sonia) Gandhi has told me herself that there is no official candidate,” Tharoor stressed for the benefit of reporters who quizzed him about his prospects when almost the entire top brass was supporting Kharge. Among those who nominated Kharge were previous aspirants for the candidature — Ashok Gehlot, Manish Tewari, Digvijaya Singh — and party bigwigs including AK Antony, Salman Khurshid, Bhupinder Hooda, Anand Sharma, et al.

But Tharoor was undaunted. “We’re all colleagues here. I have a vision for the Congress and people who support me from Kashmir to Kerala and from Punjab to Nagaland believe in it,” the MP known for his linguistic abilities said, switching with aplomb between Hindi, Malayalam and English.

As nominations closed on Friday, an unlikely third candidate — former Jharkhand minister KN Tripathi — too entered the fray. About 9,100 Congress delegates will vote on October 17 to elect the new Congress president.

Senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge files his nomination papers

Senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge files his nomination papers | Photo Credit: Ravi Choudhary

High drama

The nominations were not without a big share of drama. Kharge was chosen over the cannier Digvijaya Singh, Manish Tewari or the low-profile Mukul Wasnik after the fracas over the Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who was the first choice of the Gandhis against Tharoor, one among the G-23 who famously wrote a letter to Sonia Gandhi in 2020 asking for reforms and change. But Gehlot’s prospects diminished once he delivered a crushing blow to Rahul Gandhi’s assertion of “one-man-one-post” rule that implied that he would have to give up CM-ship if he becomes Congress president. Gehlot’s supporters, that included about 90 MLAs, gathered to assert that they would not accept the alternative — Sachin Pilot.

Along came Kharge, the safest bet with his sober image and longstanding career as a mass politician and a Dalit leader to boot. Given the support he has, his election seems a near certainty.