Amid Kharge vs Tharoor, a Look at the History of Congressional Presidential Elections

By Rasheed Kidwai: badalta hai rang asman kaise kaise…mitata hai pir-o-javan kaise kaise

Prem Rangpuri’s verse is a timeless and telling commentary on the rise and fall of the powerful, especially in the political arena. The unknown and anonymous have gained thrones and prominence while the famous and popular suffer humiliation as the wheel of time advances.

Here is a little note on the ambient atmosphere when Nehru-Gandhi family members and post-1980s Congress presidents PV Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri took over the Congress presidency with a painting. The 137-year-old grand party witnessed joy, gloom and a deep sense of discouragement.

READ ALSO | Overhaul needed in Congress to inspire people’s confidence: Shashi Tharoor | Exclusive


It was the 34th session of All India Congress Committee (AICC) held on December 26, 1919, where Motilal Nehru was elected as the President of AICC in the presence of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and many other stalwarts. Motilal was then 60 years old, extremely westernized and not considered an easy-going man. Initially, he was against any extra-constitutional measures against the British Raj, but the Jallianwala Bagh massacre which occurred in April 1919, killing 379 helpless people, changed him completely.

Motilal Nehru with Mahatma Gandhi. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Jallianwala Bagh holocaust was followed by martial law. Motilal Nehru did what he could to rescue those who had been sentenced to the gallows or sentenced to long prison terms.


Mahatma Gandhi proposed the name Jawaharlal Nehrus for the Congress Presidency in Lahore on the bank of the Ravi River. Jawaharlal, barely 40 years old, was somewhat embarrassed but Motilal was overjoyed and quoted a Persian adage: Harche ki pidar natawanad, pesar tamam kunaad (What the father is unable to accomplish, the son accomplishes) . Jawaharlal was the first president of Congress to ride a horse, a white steed, and was so well received that a newspaper wrote: Even kings could envy him.

Twelve-year-old Indira Gandhi was on hand to witness the historic moment along with Motilal and Swarup Rani who watched the proceedings from the balcony of Bhalla Shoe Company at Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore shedding petals. Lahore, the capital of Punjab at the time, wore a festive look on the day as all the streets were covered in streamers and twinkled with colored lights.

Jawaharlal Nehru. (Getty Images)

Pran Chopra, a Congress supporter who later became a distinguished journalist, was present that day and recorded, When Nehru came to Lahore, he was in the eyes of many a very romantic figure. He was handsome, he was dedicated. He inspired a kind of response that I don’t think anyone other than Gandhi inspired among the people.


When Indira Gandhi became President of Congress for a year in 1959, much to the surprise of many party members when Father Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister, many saw the development as the Prime Minister’s attempt to push his girl in the coveted position. . But much of the members of Congress at that time felt that Indira had been brought in to do successful work, which Jawaharlal was uncomfortable doing. The Nehru Cabinet had rejected the first democratically elected left-wing government of EMS Namboodiripad in Kerala, despite gaining a majority in the Legislative Assembly based on the recommendation of the then state governor, Burgula Ramakrishna Rao.

The Namboodiripads regime had launched sweeping land reforms and introduced an Education Bill regulating and controlling a plethora of private schools upsetting the influential Christian Church, Muslim League and Nair Service Society which soon turned into a mass movement to overthrow the government of Namboodiripads.

Indira Gandhi after being elected President of Congress in 1959.

When Indira’s term ended in 1960, the Congressional Labor Committee (CWC) tried hard, asking Indira to run for another race, but she staunchly refused. Indira returned to active politics after Jawaharlals’ death in 1964.


The assassination of Indira Gandhi, the outbreak of anti-Sikh riots and the swearing in of Rajiv Gandhis as Prime Minister on October 31, 1984 were so dramatic that a fourth-generation Nehru-Gandhi family member taking the helm of Congress was lost in the din. There was no AICC or CWC to raise Rajiv. At a meeting of party general secretaries held on the evening of October 31 at 24 Akbar Road which passed a condolence resolution recalling Indiras’ services, veteran Kamlapati Tripathi proposed Rajiv’s name.

Rajiv Gandhi.

The event did not even appear in the newspaper for the following days, but was mentioned in the annual report of the General Secretaries presented during the Centenary Session of the Congress at Brabourne Stadium, (then) Bombay, on December 28, 1985.


No clear successor to the leadership of the Congress party was in evidence. Indira and Rajiv Gandhi had a family hold on the party and Indira had ensured that Rajiv learned from her and kept the regional satraps in their place. Rajiv’s sudden death on May 21, 1991 brought their ambitions to the fore.

The CWC, comprising twelve members and two permanent and four special guests, met at 24, Akbar Road eighteen hours after Rajiv’s death. Sitting on white sheets, the party leaders left the place intended for the leader vacant as a sign of respect for their late leader. The meeting lasted over a hundred minutes, but no refreshments were served.

Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao. (Photo: India Today)

Hours before the meeting, the Congress coterie had held several meetings to decide who would chair the CWC meeting in the absence of the Congress President. According to the Congress constitution, the most senior general secretary of the party was to lead these meetings, but there was no agreement on the seniority of the general secretaries.

Finally, Pranab Mukherjee, who was not in the race for the succession, had proposed the name of PV Narasimha Raos. Rao had requested his retirement from active politics on the eve of the 1991 general election and refused to stand at the polls. He was non-controversial and readily accepted by all groups and factions as the meet’s chairman, even though he was not even a member of the CWC. Thus, Rao was chosen due to his seniority, his long association with Indira and Rajiv, and his lack of serious competitor status.

At the end of the meeting, Arjun Singh proposed that Sonia Gandhi take over as head of AICC and all others present unanimously approved his proposal.

These deliberations took place while Rajiv’s body was still lying down. The CWC’s decision was communicated to Sonia by a group of party leaders, which included Ghulam Nabi Azad and Pranab Mukherjee. The meeting between Congress leaders and Sonia lasted barely ten minutes. Sonia didn’t say anything about it, but she must have been taken aback by the timing of the request.

A day later, she released a small statement, refusing to take the job. The note read: The tragedy that has befallen me and my children does not allow me to accept the presidency of Congress.

After Sonia declined the position of Speaker of Congress, on May 23, 1991, an election was held at 24 Akbar Road. Several halls have been converted into state appointing centers. Groups led by regional satraps submitted nomination forms in favor of Rao. Within hours, he was unanimously elected head of the AICC.


After the unceremonious exit of PV Narasimha Raos, 24, Akbar Road saw the rise of Sitaram Kesri. Rao had resigned as Congress President and the CWC met on September 23, 1996 to elect a new party chairman, Keralas Mr Clean, AK Antony was a frontrunner. However, Kesri landed the coveted post not because he was the best or the brightest, but because he was seen as a weak and malleable party leader.

Kesris’ trademark style included the dark glasses and Gandhi cap, which he was never seen without; he also had a characteristic abjection on his face. Kesri had been a regular in the Congress party office since 1978. When he replaced Pranab Mukherjee as party treasurer in 1980, he occupied a room next to that of the Congress speaker. From September 1996 to March 1998, Kesris’ tenure cast Rajiv as a visionary, Rao as a statesman, and Sonia as a savior.

Sitaram Kesri.

Kesri had won the congressional presidential elections against Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot, although many members of Congress called the party’s polls a farce. Except for Maharashtra and parts of Uttar Pradesh, all congressional units in the state had backed Kesri. He had posted a landslide victory in an election widely criticized for irregularities, securing 6,224 votes from AICC delegates against Pawars 882 and Rajesh Pilots 354. In established congressional tradition, opponents of Kesris sang a chorus congratulations and promised to cooperate with him.


On March 14, 1998, 24th Akbar Road witnessed a silent constitutional coup that saw the unsavory exit of an elected congressman and the appointment of Sonia Gandhi as party leader. Kesri, then seventy-nine, had arrived at the CWC meeting at 24 Akbar Road convinced that a party chairman could not be expelled. Little did he know that prior to the 11 a.m. meeting, most of the CWC members had gathered at Pranab Mukherjees to approve two crucial statements. The first was an ultimatum asking Kesri to stand down; the second, a resolution replacing him with Sonia Gandhi.

The moment Kesri entered the hallway, he knew something was wrong. Loyalist Tariq Anwar was the only one who rose to greet him. After Kesri sat down, Mukherjee started reading a resolution thanking him for his services.

Sonia Gandhi.

A horrified Kesri shouted, Arre yeh kya keh rahe ho (Hey, what are you saying) but there was a smirk on the faces of his colleagues. Kesri raved about the unconstitutional meeting and stormed out, followed by loyalist Anwar. When Kesri walked past her room, the nameplate was missing, already replaced with a computer printout that read: Congresswoman Sonia Gandhi. As he got into the car, he was heckled and members of the Youth Congress tried to shoot Kesri’s dhoti.

Sonia Gandhi Dobara

When Rahul Gandhi, the 87th head of the AICC, resigned on May 25, 2019, his resignation was accepted in July of the same year. On August 9-10, 2019, senior party leaders numbering around 150 had gathered at 24, Akbar Road, New Delhi, where an informal head count was conducted and an overwhelming majority favored Sonia Gandhi as acting party president. Sonia, say congressional leaders, was keen to hold the AICC session and drop her job within a year, but COVID-19 acted as a spoiler.

Could it be Mallikarjun Kharge or Shashi Tharoor?

Nehru-Gandhi Family Members – Years as Congress Presidents

[in 137 years of Congress, Nehru-Gandhi family members have been the head of the party for over 50 years]

-Motilal Nehru 1919, 1928

-Jawaharlal Nehru 1929, 1930, 1935-38, 1951-55

-Indira Gandhi: 1959, 1978-84

– Rajiv Gandhi: 1984-1991

-Sonia Gandhi: 1998-2017 and Acting President of the AICC From August 10, 2019 to date.

-Rahul Gandhi: 2017-2019