New Delhi: Senior Congress leaders Mallikarjun Kharge and Shashi Tharoor will face-off in an electoral contest on Monday for the post of AICC chief, as the party gets set to have a non-Gandhi president in more than 24 years.
Over 9,000 Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) delegates form the electoral college to pick the party chief in a secret ballot.
Voting would take place at the AICC headquarters here and at over 65 polling booths across the country in an electoral contest which is taking place for the sixth time in the party's 137-year history.
While party chief Sonia Gandhi and Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra are expected to vote at the AICC headquarters here, Rahul Gandhi will be voting at the Bharat Jodo Yatra campsite in Karnataka's Sanganakallu in Ballari along with around 40 other Bharat Yatris who are PCC delegates.
Tharoor will cast his vote at the Kerala Congress headquarters at Thiruvananthapuram. Kharge is considered the firm favourite for his perceived proximity to the Gandhis and backing by senior leaders, even as Tharoor has pitched himself as the candidate of change.
During the campaign, even though Tharoor raised issues of uneven playing field, both candidates and the party have maintained that the Gandhis are neutral and that there is no "official candidate".
Kharge and Tharoor made fervent appeals on the last day of the campaign with the former being in Bengaluru and the latter in Lucknow as part of the campaign to woo delegates.
Speaking in Bengaluru, Kharge said he would have no shame in taking the advice and support of the Gandhi family in running the party affairs, in case he becomes its president, as they have struggled and put their strength for its growth. The veteran leader said he is the "delegates' candidate" in these polls.
Meanwhile, Tharoor took a veiled dig at some senior leaders supporting Kharge, saying some colleagues were "indulging in 'netagiri' and telling party workers" that they know whom Sonia Gandhi wants elected.
If anyone has "fear or doubt" in their mind, the party has made it clear that it will be a secret ballot, he said in Lucknow and urged the Congress delegates to listen to their hearts while voting to elect the new party president.
While the Kharge camp shared a campaign video seeking votes for him which included visuals of him walking with Rahul Gandhi in the Bharat Jodo Yatra with the song 'Kandhon se milte hain kandhe' from the movie Lakshya playing in the background, Tharoor issued a fervent video appeal on Twitter calling on electors to show courage to "embrace change".
Tharoor asserted that in the change he envisions, the party's "values and loyalties" will remain the same with only the ways of achieving the goals undergoing a transformation.
Electors in the Congress presidential polls have been asked to put a tick mark against the name of their choice on the ballot paper after AICC president candidate Shashi Tharoor's team took up with the party's top poll body the issue of its earlier directive that voters write "1" to reflect their preference, citing that it may lead to confusion.
"The voters are instructed to put a tick mark in the box in front of the candidate whom they wish to vote for. Putting any other symbol or writing a number would make the vote invalid," the directive from Mistry's office said.
Asked about the significance of the polls, Congress general secretary in-charge communications Jairam Ramesh told PTI that he has always believed in the Congress model of evolving a consensus for such positions.
The most famous practitioner of this approach in the post-Nehruvian era was K Kamaraj, he noted.
"As we approach the E-Day tomorrow this belief has become even more stronger. The reasons for this are pretty obvious," Ramesh said without elaborating. "I am not at all convinced that organisational elections actually strengthen the organisation in any way. They may serve individual purposes but their value in building a collective spirit is doubtful." Even so, the very fact that elections are taking place are of some significance, he added.
"But I consider them of less institutional importance than the historic Bharat Jodo Yatra which is a transformational initiative for the Congress and for Indian politics as well," Ramesh said.
Though the campaign has been largely about a roadmap for the party which the two candidates have elaborated upon during their meetings with PCC delegates at various headquarters of the party in states, it has also seen complaints and claims of an uneven playing field by the Tharoor camp.
The contrast in the campaigns has been stark -- while Kharge's campaign has seen several senior leaders, PCC chiefs and top leaders receiving him at the state headquarters visited by him, Tharoor has mostly been welcomed by young PCC delegates with PCC chiefs mostly absent from his events.
Tharoor has said during his campaign that he is the candidate of change while Kharge represents status quo.
He has also claimed that youngsters and people in lower levels of the party are supporting him, while seniors are backing his rival.
Kharge, on his part, has highlighted his experience, coming up the organisational ranks over decades and his ability to take everyone along.