New Delhi: The race for the Congress president's post hotted up on Wednesday with Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot giving a clear indication that he could enter the poll fray and Shashi Tharoor meeting the party's poll panel chief to enquire about the nomination formalities.
Gehlot also hinted that he would like to continue as the chief minister but suspense persisted over whether he would stay on or get a person of his choice to helm the Rajasthan government, or the post would go to his bete noire Sachin Pilot.
On whether keeping both posts of the chief minister and party president could be a violation of the party's pledge of 'one person, one post' taken at Udaipur, Gehlot said that it applied when the high command nominates people.
The AICC president polls were an open election and anybody among the 9,000 Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) delegates, irrespective of whether that person is an MP, MLA or minister, can contest, he noted.
Citing an example, he said if a minister in a state stands for Congress president election and becomes party president, that person can also stay as minister.
Responding to another question on whether he would stay on as chief minister, Gehlot said, "Wherever I stay in one post, 2 posts, 3 posts or nowhere, I don't mind, my wish will be to enter the field, tour with Rahul Gandhi ji, go on the yatra, call upon the people to hit the streets and open a front against these fascist people."
"Time will tell where I remain. I would like to stay where the party benefits from me, I will not back down," he asserted.
Asked whether the 'one person, one post' formula could apply in the polls, the party's central election authority chairman Madhusudan Mistry told PTI that being on a post does not stop anyone from contesting polls and the party constitution states that any delegate can fight the elections.
With Rahul Gandhi likely to stick to his earlier stance of not taking on party presidency, a Gehlot versus Tharoor contest seems likely. In the next few days, it would also be clear if a surprise candidate or candidates also throw their hat in the ring.
Interestingly, a TV channel quoted Digvijaya Singh as saying that he was not ruling himself out of the race. However, taking to Twitter, Singh, in a tongue-in-cheek remark, thanked the channel "for the spin".
Also, it could be a keener contest than the one in 2000 when Sonia Gandhi trumped Jitendra Prasada as she asserted that she would remain neutral in the polls and there would be no "official candidate".
Gehlot met Sonia Gandhi at her 10, Janpath residence and later left for Mumbai. The Rajasthan chief minister is expected to reach Kochi on Thursday and make a last-ditch effort to convince Rahul Gandhi, who is undertaking the Bharat Jodo Yatra, to take over the reins of the party.
Pilot was on Wednesday with Rahul Gandhi during the yatra as it moved through Kochi city and said the average party worker wants Gandhi to lead from the front.
Sources said Gehlot conveyed to Sonia Gandhi that he will try to convince Rahul Gandhi to take on the post of party chief and it was time that he should lead the Congress as he is already combating the Modi government.
In a clear indication that he could throw his hat in the ring for the Congress president polls, Gehlot said he will file his nomination if his party people wish so and fulfil any responsibility given to him. Speaking with reporters after landing here from Jaipur ahead of his meeting with Sonia Gandhi, Gehlot said, "The party and the high command have given me everything. I have been on posts for 40-50 years. For me no post is important, I will fulfil any responsibility given to me."
He also asserted that not only the Gandhi family, but scores of Congress members have faith in him.
"I am very fortunate that I have got love and affection of Congress men and women across the country and they have faith in me," Gehlot said.
"Therefore, if they ask me to fill the form (nomination), I will not be able to refuse...Will speak with friends. I was given the responsibility of being Rajasthan chief minister, I am fulfilling that responsibility as a CM and will keep fulfilling that," said Gehlot.
He said he wants to serve Congress, wherever he is useful, be it Rajasthan or Delhi.
"The party has given me everything, post is not so important for me. If it is up to me, I would not take any post, I would join Rahul Gandhi in the Bharat Jodo Yatra looking at the situation in the country, the Constitution is being destroyed, and democracy is in danger. They (the BJP) are destroying the country," he said.
Asked about a prospective contest with Shashi Tharoor for the party chief's post, he said the contest should take place as it is good for the internal democracy of the party.
Meanwhile, Tharoor, who is also set to contest the polls, met party central election authority chief Mistry at the AICC headquarters here.
Sources said that Mistry assured Tharoor that the election would be free, fair and open.
Asked about the meeting, Mistry told PTI that he cleared his enquiry on the voters' list, election agent and the filing of nomination.
"He (Tharoor) will be sending a person on (Sep) 24th to collect the (nomination) forms. He was satisfied," Mistry said.
The meeting was mainly about queries on formalities for filing of nomination, he said.
The Congress' state units in Punjab and Telangana on Wednesday passed a resolution backing Rahul Gandhi for the post of the party president. Over a dozen PCCs have so far come out in support of Gandhi.
The notification for the polls is out and the process for filing nominations for the election will be held from September 24 to 30.
The date of scrutiny of the nomination papers would be October 1, while the last date of withdrawal of nominations would be October 8. The election, if there is more than one candidate, will take place on October 17. The counting of votes and the declaration of results would be on October 19.