Shashi Tharoor, running for the post of the first non-Gandhi president of the Congress in more than two decades, got a very cold shoulder from party delegates in Tamil Nadu today. The 66-year-old was in Chennai to seek support of the 700-plus Congress delegates from the state who can vote in the election. But only 12 or so attended the meeting, held at Sathiamoorthy Bhavan, the party's state headquarters in Chennai.
Sources in the party indicated that attending Mr Tharoor's meet could be seen as going against the 'official' candidate who apparently has the approval of the Gandhis. That candidate is Mallikarjun Kharge, the 11th-hour entry after front-runner Ashok Gehlot dropped out of the race.
"It is their loss if they are afraid to attend my meet. We could have had a constructive exchange," Mr Tharoor told reporters in Chennai. "The Gandhis have clarified that they have no official candidate. We will dispel the myth that Kharge is the official candidate," he added.
Mr Tharoor was the first leader in the Congress to announce his candidature for the election. He did so after a meeting with Sonia Gandhi.
In an interview to NDTV last week, Mr Tharoor said Mrs Gandhi told him "You are most welcome to contest". There would be no "official candidate" as her entire family would stay neutral, she had assured him.
But Ashok Gehlot, longtime loyalist of the Gandhi family announced his candidature soon after and immediately catapulted to the spot of favourite in the race.
This was swiftly followed by a twist, with Mr Gehlot indicating that he was averse to move out of Rajasthan. After Rahul Gandhi made it clear that the party will stick to its "One man one post" rule, Mr Gehlot's followers launched an open rebellion. Falling into disfavour with key central leaders and the Gandhis, Mr Gehlot said he would not contest.
Mallikarjun Kharge, who was the last-minute pick, had suggested that there should be a "consensus candidate". But there was no positive response.
Mr Tharoor, who was part of the Group of 27 leaders who demanded organizational changes in an explosive letter to Sonia Gandhi in 2020, has been keen on the contest.
Responding to a question on how the Congress had weakened itself expelling stalwarts across India, seeing them as a threat to the leadership, Mr Tharoor said "I would empower state leaders. I believe a strong state leadership would give the Congress a stronger foundation for the national efforts it makes".
"In the '50s and '60s when Jawaharlal Nehru was a very strong Prime Minister, we had very strong chief ministers, strong state like Kamaraj in Tamil Nadu, BC Roy and Atulya Ghosh in Bengal, SK Patil and YB Chavan in Maharashtra, Govind Vallabh Pant in Uttar Pradesh. We had so many examples of strong state leaders and the national party did not suffer because of that but it gained because of that," he said.
He also added that he would "invite ex-Congress leaders in BJP to return".
Election for the Congress president will be held on October 17 and the votes will be counted on October 19.