A contest for its top post, a rare event for any political party in India, has turned the spotlight on the Congress. Around 8,000 delegates will vote on October 17 to elect a new chief for the party. It was the refusal of Rahul Gandhi to return to hold the formal reins of the party that set the ball rolling in this direction. Mr. Gandhi also made it clear that his mother Sonia Gandhi could not continue as president, and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra cannot contest. Leaving the road clear for a relatively open contest for the top post which is reserved for a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family whenever one of them claimed it, Mr. Gandhi set out on a walk from the southern tip of the country towards the north. His Bharat Jodo Yatra has also struck a chord with people in the areas it has touched so far. Mrs. Gandhi had wanted Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot to contest, and he appeared to be agreeable, initially. But the efforts to effect a transition in the State ended in chaos, grounding the plans for his candidacy. MLAs in Rajasthan want Mr. Gehlot to continue in office. The Rajasthan episode was badly managed by the party, showing itself and a loyal veteran in a bad light. It was avoidable.
The contest is actually for the second most important position in the Congress. It is clear that Mr. Gandhi will remain the final authority in the party, while the elected president will be tasked with the running of the organisation. The BJP has had supreme leaders above party presidents — A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani at one point and Narendra Modi and Amit Shah now. There is a valid perception that the family is tilting the scales in favour of one contestant — Mallikarjun Kharge — against Shashi Tharoor, which needs to be dispelled. The Nehru-Gandhi family’s moral authority over the party stems from its neutrality and fairness in internal tussles. That authority is often exercised through representatives who at times fail to maintain neutrality. Recent episodes in Punjab and Rajasthan — the promotion of Navjot Singh Sidhu and the pressure on Mr. Gehlot, respectively — have weakened the authority of the family. Being a neutral arbiter is the right thing to do, and apart from that, self preservation demands that Mr. Gandhi enables popular leaders to emerge stronger in the party. Mr. Kharge or Mr. Tharoor, the truly popular should be able to to win. Mr. Gandhi will only reinforce his authority by making it public that the family has no candidate.