The Congress on Friday claimed its leadership did not have any favourites in the contest for party president, as Gandhi family loyalist Mallikarjun Kharge made a surprise entrance in the race with the endorsement of top leaders to take on underdogs Shashi Tharoor and KN Tripathi.
"There is no official candidate and Congress President (Sonia Gandhi) has given a clear message she is not supporting any candidate, neither is the high command," said Madhusudan Mistry, the chairperson of the Congress's Central Election Authority.
"Can't say whether the Gandhis will cast their ballot in the elections," he added.
The comment was an attempt to address the widely-held notion that the Gandhis had prompted veteran leader Mallikarjun Kharge to join the race to maintain their grip on the party by installing a leader who would toe their line.
Mr Kharge's proposers for the contest include several big names, including former chief ministers Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Digvijaya Singh, and Prithviraj Chavan, former defence minister AK Antony, spokesperson AM Singhvi, and former Union minister Ajay Maken, among others.
Mr Tharoor too filed his nominations today ahead of the 3 pm deadline. Former Jharkhand minister KN Tripathi, who is the third candidate in the contest, has also filed his papers. Digvijaya Singh, who collected his nomination papers yesterday, dropped out of the contest after meeting with Mr Kharge this morning.
After a late-night meeting, Congress veteran KC Venugopal conveyed to Mr Kharge that the leadership wants him to contest, said sources, despite the Gandhis saying they would remain neutral.
Responding to the announcement, Shashi Tharoor on Friday said he is aware of his underdog tag and talk of an "official candidate" in some quarters, but he has been assured by the Gandhi family repeatedly that they are "neither directly nor indirectly" backing anyone.
Mr Tharoor also said it is apparent that not everything about the electoral process has been ideal, but added that there is no point seeking perfection now as if one wants to play the match, one has to "bat on the available pitch".