The race at its best: Congress is all set to elect a non-Gandhi chief in 24 years...Who holds the edge?

For the first time in 24 years, the Congress party is gearing up to welcome its new president who is not from the Gandhi family. Being spelt as one of the best political races in India, the party has begun the process of electing a new chief on Monday - October 17 as the nation closely watches the development of who is acing up the sleeve to win the race.

After episodes of furores and shocking turns over declaring the final candidates for the race, thousands of party members are voting on Monday to elect a successor to Sonia Gandhi and the result would be declared on October 19. In the race are senior Congress leaders Mallikarjun Kharge (80) and Shashi Tharoor (66) and the voting is taking place at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) headquarters in Delhi and at over 65 polling booths across the country. 

It is for the first time in decades that one of the country's biggest political parties is displaying how the election to the apex role will be held as Sonia Gandhi was elected as the chief unopposed after 2000. According to reports, the party's electoral college consists of over 9,000 delegates will be casting their vote to elect the new president. Interestingly, it is the sixth electoral contest for the president of Congress in the party's 137-year history. 

Though the race is hot, Mallikarjun Kharge is said to have an advantage over Tharoor as the former has close ties with the Gandhi family and backing from the senior leaders than the latter. As it has been said that there will only be a change in the name, it is certain that the Gandhi family will be exercising the command from behind the screen and several political observers say that Kharge will be the right man to entertain Gandhis' command. 

However, the party and both candidates have maintained that the Gandhis are neutral. In spite of playing on a hard pitch, Shashi Tharoor, who is Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, has tried to project himself as the candidate of change. Commenting about the significance of the polls, Congress general secretary in charge of communications, Jairam Ramesh said he has always believed in the Congress model of evolving a consensus for such positions.

He reminisced that former party chief K Kamaraj, from Tamil Nadu, was the practitioner of this approach after the Nehru era. Ramesh said, "As we approach E-day tomorrow, this belief has become even more stronger. The reasons for this are pretty obvious. I am not at all convinced that organizational elections actually strengthen the organization 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 is of some significance. 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 added. During the campaign trials of both candidates, there was the visibility of polarity as Kharge was backed by senior leaders while Tharoor had good support from young delegates, though they won't play a major part in the party's electoral college. 

There was a vivid sense of rivalry between the candidates and Tharoor claimed that he is the candidate of change and that youngsters and people in lower levels of the party are supporting him. On the other hand, Kharge has disseminated his experience at the party and his ability to take everyone along. However, both the leaders asserted that the Gandhis hold a special place in the party and Tharoor went on to say that no Congress president can function keeping a distance from the Gandhi family as their DNA runs in the party's blood. 

Last Wednesday, Congress' Central election authority chairman Madhusudan Mistry said that the party's presidential polls will be held by a secret ballot and no one will get to know who voted for whom. He further said that after the voting, the sealed boxes from across the country will be brought to Delhi and kept in a strong room at the party's headquarters. Furthermore, the ballot papers would be mixed before the counting of votes begin.

While Congress president Sonia Gandhi and general secretary Priyanka Gandhi would be voting at the party's headquarters in Delhi, Rahul Gandhi will be voting at the Bharat Jodo Yatra campsite in Sanganakallu in Ballari, Karnataka along with over 40 Congress delegates who are eligible to vote. It is pertinent to note that the last electoral contest for the apex role took place in 2000 when Sonia Gandhi became the president by defeating her contender Jitendra Prasada.