Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: How the Congress party elects its president

Congress presidents have more often than not been handpicked by a strong central leadership or the party’s top leader. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi may have seeded this trend before Independence with the elevation of Jawaharlal Nehru, first as party president in 1929 and later as the Prime Minister of independent India in 1947.

After the Congress split in the late 1960s, Indira Gandhi and her children were the undisputed leaders in the eponymous Congress (Indira), later officially recognized as the Indian National Congress. A high-command culture has existed for decades within the party now. However, this is only the third time over the past five decades that Congress will witness an election for the top job.

Who will elect the Congress president?

The Congress Working Committee, the apex body of the party, has decided that the All India Congress Committee (AICC) president will be elected by 17 October. The party’s Central Election Authority (CEA) will oversee the election process under Article XVIII of its constitution.

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The electoral college has a strength of about 9,000. These are all delegates of the INC. The Congress constitution lays down that all Pradesh Congress Committees (PCCs) members are INC delegates.

There are clear guidelines for selecting these delegates who, in turn, elect the Congress president.

So, Block Congress Committees send a delegate to the PCC. Past and present presidents of PCC automatically become delegates, and so do AICC members residing in that state. In addition, PCC nominates some delegates from under-represented categories, and some are elected by the Congress legislative party in different states.

The winner has to get more than half of the total votes. If no candidate secures 50% of the votes, second preference votes get counted. In a two-horse race, the candidate with the majority number of votes wins.

This time, the party’s CEA has restrained office-bearers from campaigning for any candidate in the run-up to the voting on 17 October.

Who are the contestants this time?

It’s a face-off between Congress veteran Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor. The 80-year-old Kharge recently resigned as the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha – in line with the Congress policy of One Man, One Post – and was seen as the candidate of the high command (read the Gandhis). The 66-year-old Tharoor is the Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram and former under-secretary general of the United Nations.

How have Congress presidents been elected in the past?

This is only the third time there will be a contest for the top job in the Indian National Congress over the past five decades or so. Sitaram Kesri defeated Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot in 1997, while Sonia Gandhi trounced Jitendra Prasada in 2000.

Sonia Gandhi remained the undisputed president of the Congress till 2017 when she made way for her son Rahul Gandhi, who, too, was elected unopposed but subsequently stepped down after the party’s debacle in the 2019 elections. Sonia has been the interim Congress president since then.

The Gandhis have been the unquestioned high command of the party for decades. After the Congress split in 1969, Indira became the uncontested leader of Congress (Indira) – it was recognized as the Indian National Congress in 1981 – and later became both the party president and prime minister. Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao, too, remained both party president and prime minister. However, the elevation of Manmohan Singh as the prime minister was a departure from this practice – Sonia remained the president but selected Singh for the prime minister’s job.

The practice of the supreme leader deciding the party president perhaps began in the pre-independence era with Mahatma Gandhi, who initially paved the way for Nehru’s elevation as the Congress president and later as the prime minister of independent India.

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