‘Establishment’ won’t win if voting is secret: Tharoor

Congress presidential candidate Shashi Tharoor on Tuesday claimed many electors have been instructed by ‘their leaders’ to support his rival but they may eventually vote for him in a secret ballot.

Tharoor is pitted against Mallikarjun Kharge, who is being seen as a favourite for the top party post because of his perceived proximity to the Gandhi family.

In an interview with PTI, Tharoor also said he is sure that those who are expecting a lopsided victory for the ‘establishment’, as had happened in the 1997 and 2000 elections, are in for a surprise when the votes are counted.

The Thiruvananthapuram MP said he expects the central election authority (CEA) to clarify publicly that the vote will be conducted by a secret ballot, complete with sealed ballot boxes to be opened in Delhi before the candidates and their agents, and the votes mixed together before counting starts.

Asked whether some leaders who are not voicing support for him for the fear of upsetting senior leaders may eventually vote for him in a secret ballot, Tharoor said, “I certainly know that many who have not openly supported me so far for such reasons, including not even attending some of my campaign events, have privately expressed support.”

“Some of their ‘leaders’ in the party, to whom they are beholden, have instructed them to support my rival and they feel they cannot defy these ‘netas‘ openly. Many such people may eventually choose to cast their vote in my favour,” Tharoor said.

The 66-year-old Congress leader said many delegates have privately expressed such sentiments and he sees no reason for them to not come through, especially when the vote will be conducted by secret ballot, complete with sealed ballot boxes to be opened in Delhi before the candidates and their agents, and the votes mixed together before counting starts.

“I expect the CEA to clarify all this publicly in the following days. The fact that it is a secret ballot is crucial to assuage the fears of many who are still under the impression that their political bosses will be able to find out how they voted. It is another matter that our high command has assured me there is no ‘official candidate’ in the race, so why should our colleagues fear reprisals if they vote for me,” Tharoor said.

Asked if it will be like the 1983 cricket world cup-like triumph of the underdog in the polls, he said he is sure that those who are expecting a lopsided victory for the establishment in this election as happened on the last two occasions in 1997 and 2000, are in for a surprise when the votes are counted on October 19.

“But I wouldn’t characterise the result in terms of an upset or a personal victory –as I have said, whether Mr Kharge wins or I do, the only victory that matters is a victory for the Indian National Congress. 2024, here we come!” the Lok Sabha MP said.

In 1997, Sitaram Kesri, who squared off in a triangular contest with Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot, won by a huge margin. In 2000, Jitendra Prasada suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Sonia Gandhi.

Tharoor reiterated that the Gandhi family have made it clear that they are staying above the fray and are neutral, and have also asked the party spokespeople and the party’s central election authority to announce that.

At a press conference during the Bharat Jodo Yatra last week, Rahul Gandhi had dismissed claims that the next Congress president would be ‘remote-controlled’ by his family, saying both the contenders — Kharge and Tharoor — are people of stature and understanding and to make such a suggestion was insulting for them.

When asked about most senior leaders siding with his electoral competitor Kharge and many office-bearers, including from Kerala, having allegedly violating poll guidelines issued by the central election authority, Tharoor said the Gandhis have also authorised CEA chairman Madhusudan Mistry to assure candidates a secret ballot, and to declare publicly, as he has repeatedly done, that anyone stating or implying the contrary is wrong.

“Of course, individual leaders and workers are allowed to have their own preferences and choices. The freedom to choose is a fundamental principle of any democratic exercise. With regard to the brazen violation of these guidelines by some office-bearers, I will leave it to the Central Election Authority and you in the media to decide what to make of it,” Tharoor said.

On his call for a public debate and Kharge’s response that it is a fight against the Bharatiya Janata Party and not among Congress candidates, Tharoor said he had made the remarks in response to a specific question, including from PTI, and he welcomed the idea of a debate only because he believed that it may be of interest to those who wanted to understand our respective visions for the future of the Congress party.

“But I agree with Mr Kharge that our real disagreement is with the BJP, not with each other. I keep saying this is not a battle between rivals but a friendly contest between colleagues who happen to have two different visions on how best to take our party forward,” the former Union minister said.

“As I have repeatedly stressed, I have great personal respect for Mr Kharge, who has ably served the party in a number of capacities, as well as in Parliament, in the state of Karnataka, and as a minister in the government of India. At the age of 80, which includes six decades and more in the party, he is a kind of Bhishma Pitamah for us, and he certainly brings abundant experience to the table. I have high regard and fraternal feelings for him,” Tharoor said.

He said his own strengths are in different domains but both share similar convictions and strong loyalty to the ideals and values of the Congress.

“There is no ideological difference between us; the choice for our voting colleagues on October 17 is only on who would ensure that the Congress does better than it has in recent elections, and brings back to us the voters who abandoned us in 2014 and 2019,” he said.

Tharoor asserted that he is the candidate of reform and change in the way the party is run, only to make it fighting fit to tackle the BJP in 2022.

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