“Hello sir, I am calling from Shashi Tharoor sir’s office. You know elections are coming and both Kharge and Tharoor sahib are the choice of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi ji,” a canvasser for Shashi Tharoor solicits the support of a Congress delegate from Amethi. “Please vote carefully.”
Two “friendly contenders”, Tharoor and Rajya Sabha MP Mallikarjun Kharge, are slugging it out to convince over 9,000 party delegates to vote for them in the October 17 election for Congress president using similar strategies but with varying degrees of success. Tharoor’s canvasser, working out of the MP’s residence, has a list of 1,200 names from Uttar Pradesh to convince. He has called around 200 in the previous four days.
Both candidates have tasked their supporters to contact the delegates in their respective states by phone or in person. Tharoor and Kharge themselves have visited several states to talk to the delegates and get them on board.
Kharge, considered close to Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi, has been to at least eight state party headquarters and Tharoor to four.
On October 10, Tharoor cancelled his visit to Uttar Pradesh following chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav’s death. He has given interviews to the media to amplify his message of decentralisation within the party. The author of 23 books also participated in a film festival, three town hall meetings, a book launch and a memorial lecture at a media institute in Mumbai – packed with audiences without voting rights in the Congress election. The three-time MP and former UN official has also called on some senior leaders.
A Punjab Congress leader who decided to volunteer for the 66-year-old to support “his vision for the party”, said he will strategically approach delegates to “cover tracks”. “Since there is an apprehension that Tharoor supporters could face some hardships, I have to contact the delegates through different channels. For example, I will ask someone to call a certain delegate. The caller will get in touch with another person to subtly prise out the delegate’s preference,” he told Newslaundry.
At the moment, the only barometer to gauge the mood is attendance of delegates at the party’s state offices during each candidate’s visits.
In this respect Kharge, nine-time MLA and three-time MP, outshines Tharoor. While almost all delegates stayed away during Tharoor’s visit to the Kerala office, only a dozen of around 700 turned up in Tamil Nadu. The Maharashtra leg was equally underwhelming. He could not hide his frustration in an interview to NDTV, “If people are afraid to be seen with me to attend my meetings, I am sorry to say but it’s their loss because we could have had a constructive exchange as fellow workers.”
In contrast, Kharge, who has held twice as many meetings at state offices, has seen packed halls. When he visited the Delhi Congress office on October 9, Ram Babu Sharma Sabhagaar was overflowing with close to 200 of the total 280 delegates in attendance. The non-stop drizzle did not dampen spirits. Carrying a clipboard with a list of delegates, a Congress worker at the entrance monitored arrivals, ticking names of those who turned up. The prominent attendees included MP and Delhi in-charge Shaktisinh Gohil, state chief Anil Chaudhary and party veteran Janardan Dwivedi. Accompanied by MPs Sayed Naseer Hussain and Deepender Hooda, and Gourav Vallabh, the 80-year-old leader first held a brief press conference before entering the close-door gathering at the Ram Babu conference hall to a loud cheer. Speeches were interspersed with “Kharge sir, zindabad” slogans, an attendee told Newslaundry.
Fear of being sidelined
While Kharge’s refrain is on the collective enterprise and implementation of the Udaipur declaration, Tharoor’s is decentralisation to revive the Congress with the campaign slogan of “Think tomorrow, think Tharoor”.
Seen as a Gandhi family loyalist, Kharge has risen through the ranks over his half-a-century career. In his press conferences, he repeated his achievement to get Article 371(J) inserted into the constitution, which provides for, among others, reservation for people from Hyderabad region of Karnataka, his home state. He recently resigned as the opposition leader in the Rajya Sabha in line with the party’s one-person, one-post principle. His supporters admire him for his no-controversial past, unfailingly toeing the party line despite several political setbacks (he was in the race to become chief minister thrice), and organisation skills. “Anyone can get a post in the party, but he can never become a leader,” Dwivedi was quoted as saying by the said attendee at the Delhi PCC office.
Tharoor’s camp lists reasons for why he is “more appropriate” than Kharge.
Congress leader Sandeep Dikshit, who was among the 60 signatories who proposed Tharoor’s name for nomination, counts four qualities. “First, he is a self-made person. Second, he proved his mettle at the United Nations. Third, he is ideologically aligned with the Congress. Fourth, he appeals to opinion makers,” Dikshit told Newslaundry.
A compulsive reader and writer, Tharoor in 2006 came close to heading the United Nations. The US was opposed to Tharoor because he was seen as “a strong leader”. Though the Gandhis have publicly stayed neutral, sources said Sonia Gandhi has thrown her weight behind Kharge. The former UN under-secretary, who had spent 30 years at the multilateral forum, is a critic of the party’s infamous one-line resolution, under which the party president takes a final call on disputes. Tharoor has drawn the party’s ire on a few occasions by becoming an ambassador of the Swachh Bharat mission and defying Kerala Congress. “Rahul Gandhi-ji wants a free and fair election. However, Sonia-ji favours Kharge-ji for the job,” said a Congress leader.
The presence of top party leaders during Kharge’s nomination indicated the Congress establishment’s preferred choice. It is no surprise then that state PCC meetings called by Tharoor have drawn a blank.
Some leaders Newslaundry spoke to concede that “to be seen is to be sidelined”. “There is an assumption that if we are seen with Tharoor sir, we might be sidelined,” said the Punjab leader quoted above.
Delhi Congress leader Alka Lamba, who attended the Kharge speech on October 9, punctured the apprehension. “The election shows the inner democracy of the party. Just like Kharge-ji’s, I would also like to attend Tharoor-ji’s PCC meeting when he calls one. There is no fear,” she told Newslaundry. Citing an example from the previous election in 2000, she said though Jitendra Prasad lost to Sonia Gandhi, getting 94 votes of the total 7,542, he and his supporters were not neglected. She was a delegate in that election too.
Two days after the Congress Central Election Authority directed its office-bearers to resign from their organisational posts if they want to campaign, senior Kerala and Tamil Nadu leaders rallied behind Kharge. A day before Kharge’s Delhi visit, a few from the Tharoor camp alleged that delegates were influenced by state office-bearers. “We just received a simple invite message saying Kharge-ji is coming to address delegates. There was no internal messaging on how to vote,” said another Delhi Congress leader. Several of Tharoor’s volunteers are from the All India Professionals’ Congress, a party unit founded by him in 2017. “It’s not correct to say that all are from AIPC,” said Atul Chaturvedi, who has resigned as chief of AIPC’s UP unit to campaign.
Salman Anees Soz, one of the campaign managers in the Tharoor camp, told Newslaundry that all issues are being attended to by election officer Madhusudan Mistry. “It’s not right to discuss the specifics as it’s an internal election,” he said.
However, Tharoor flagged certain aspects that suggest “uneven playing field”. Earlier, Tharoor’s team, in a letter to Mistry, raised the issue of alleged discrepancies in the list of delegates. But Mistry denied any discrepancy. “There was some issue with the order of the serial numbers. The letter did not have any specific complaint,” Mistry told Newslaundry.
The campaigns, meanwhile, have reached the final stage with six days to go for the polls.
Syed Naseer Hussain, media in-charge of the Kharge team, said the veteran leader will cover nearly 15 more states.
Soz, however, lamented that they may not be able to cover all the remaining states due to paucity of time and a “shoestring budget”. Though Kharge has garnered support from “grandees”, as Tharoor calls them, and their followers, the former diplomat’s camp eyes to translate “traction” among young delegates into votes. “We are also in touch with some senior leaders. It’s just that they are behind the scene,” said another Tharoor campaign manager.
While the Kharge camp expects a landslide, his opponent’s is exercising “cautious optimism” with a call to vote with “conscience”. The air will clear on October 19 when ballot boxes will be opened to anoint the first non-Gandhi president in 22 years.