Shashi Tharoor, who squares off with Mallikarjun Kharge in the October 17 Congress president election, revealed today that Sonia Gandhi told him "you are most welcome to contest" and assured him there would be no "official candidate" as her entire family would stay neutral.
The Congress leader said he met with Sonia Gandhi, not for a green signal but to find out what the official stand is. The Congress president didn't try to dissuade him at all, he said.
"If she might have said why do you want to contest, we always do things by consensus, leave it to us, we will find the right person...But there was nothing of that sort. On the contrary, she said exactly the opposite. She said 'we believe the elections are good for the party. If you want to contest, you are most welcome'," Mr Tharoor told NDTV.
Mr Tharoor said he asked Sonia Gandhi whether there would be an official candidate. "She said there will be no official candidate, as far as I am concerned the entire family is neutral in the race. I had the same conversation but both Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Rahul Gandhi and I got the same message consistently. When Digvijay Singh went to Sonia Gandhi he got the same message," the Congress leader said.
Mr Tharoor said his is not a "protest candidacy" but a contest between colleagues in the party. Responding to critics who have questioned his experience in politics and whether he is the right person for the job, he said: "Fourteen years is long enough to make a contribution and to have demonstrated both one's loyalty to the party and to its ideals and beliefs, and to have had multiple opportunities to demonstrate it, which I have done in parliament and number of speeches and interventions and books and articles I have written. I don't think I need to explain my candidacy."
He also tackled the big question for any Congress candidate running for party chief - will the candidate be a puppet for the Gandhis?
"We'll cross those bridges when we come to it. I certainly believe that the Gandhis' place in the Congress...their inextricable links with the DNA of the party is great. There is no question of separating ourselves from them, their legacy. If they don't want to be actively involved, I don't understand where the fear (of them pulling the strings) comes from," Mr Tharoor said.
On what role he saw for Rahul Gandhi with a non-Gandhi in charge, Mr Tharoor said: "There's no question of the appeal he (Rahul Gandhi) and other members of the Gandhi family have for the voting public. For the party not to use an asset like this would be foolish. At the same time, he has made up his mind to not return as Congress chief. Frankly, if he wanted to be president, he could do so with a snap of his fingers tomorrow."
Rahul Gandhi is still seen to be de-facto in charge, it was pointed out. Would he still be the face of the Congress in the 2024 national election? And would it be wise, given the outcome of two general elections, he was asked.
"You are dragging me down a path that hasn't yet been built. Let's come to it... In 2024, I think a large no of factors have to be taken into account, including the possibility of a new opposition coalition or alliance. Other parties may have contenders in the fray, whether our party itself would necessarily have the Prime Ministerial face, whether there would be any PM face at all - these things, other have to weigh in their opinions, including the Gandhis," he said.
The Congress MP also asserted that he is not the G-23 candidate for the election, the party's first in over 20 years.
On not specifically consulting with the "G-23" or the group of dissenters who wrote to Sonia Gandhi in 2020 calling for a massive overhaul in the party, Mr Tharoor said: "I didn't feel need to speak to colleagues beyond their individual capacity. I spoke to each individually...I don't think there's an organisation called the G-23 beyond media imagination."
He added: "I need the backing of 9,100 people, not 23. I am not the candidate of the G-23. It is a myth, there is no such thing."
He also said he has a plan for the party, a manifesto that will be shared with over 9,000 Congress electors. Decentralisation, he said, could be a big answer to the chaos in the party.
The former Union Minister, known for his "Tharoorisms" or unusually long words, also responded to criticism about his "elitist" image and accent, which he attributed to his years in St Stephens college.
"If there are people don't want to look beyond my accent, they don't have to vote for me. Ultimately, we have an electoral college. If the implication is that I am some sort of elitist, I will point out I have won three elections. Thiruvananthapuram, despite being the capital of Kerala, is a 66% rural constituency. I have fisher folk, I have hill dwellers, I have tribals, I have all sorts of people whose votes I need to attract. And I have done so. I have been attentive to the problems of people of different backgrounds. I don't think anyone sees me as some sort of transplanted Oxbridge. By the way, I never studied in Oxbridge. I only debated there. The accent is a Stephanian accent," he said.