The meeting of the Congress Working Committee scheduled for 11 AM on Monday to discuss current political challenges and the party’s leadership issue is expected to be a fiery affair. The meeting comes in the backdrop of a leaked no-holds-barred letter, signed by 23 party leaders – including five former chief ministers, several former Union ministers and CWC members – urging interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi to put in place full time and effective leadership of the party and put into effect the long due overhaul of the organisation. Another group of party leaders have demanded that the CWC immediately resolve to bring Rahul Gandhi back as party chief.
The letter, written earlier this month when Sonia completed a year as interim chief of the party, has been signed by veteran and younger Congress leaders. It firmly sends across the message that the restlessness within the party isn’t prevalent only among the new generation of its leaders or those considered to be confidantes of former party chief Rahul Gandhi nor is the ongoing intra-party crisis purely the result of a tussle between the Old Guard and younger leaders.
Party sources tell Outlook that Monday’s meeting “will definitely not be as dramatic” as the CWC meeting of March 5, 1998, which had put an abrupt end to Sitaram Kesri’s tenure as Congress president and transferred the leadership to Sonia. However, there is “every possibility of some CWC members speaking, for once, about the rot within the party without the fear of losing the confidence of the Gandhis,” one of the signatories of the letter tells Outlook.
That resolution of the party’s leadership question, an organisational overhaul and greater clarity on issues of the party’s social and economic ideology have been kept in abeyance ever Rahul resigned the party’s presidency is widely known. The CWC meeting of August 10 last year, which had nominated Sonia as the party’s interim chief, and those which had taken place for the two preceding months since Rahul first announced his intention of resigning had repeatedly asserted on the need for an extensive revamp of the party.
In the year gone by, Sonia, however, focused more on revamping the party’s state units while the AICC was largely left untouched. The changes in states, much needed as they were and even dramatic on occasion, were carried out by Sonia in consultation with Rahul, despite the latter maintaining a calculated distance from the day-to-day affairs of the party until March this year when the coronavirus pandemic forced the Centre to impose a nationwide lockdown. Sonia had set up an 11-member consultative group in March to regularly discuss issues of national concern and firm up the party’s position on them. Though the group was chaired by former prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, its deliberations were guided by Rahul’s stand on various issues.
Despite the impression of being more involved with the party’s working, Rahul refrained from giving any definite indicator of whether or not he is prepared to withdraw his resignation and return as party chief. At several CWC meetings and other deliberations between Sonia and party leaders, the demand for Rahul’s return to the top party office has been a permanent fixture. This tussle was often painted as the result of unease among Rahul’s confidantes with the influence that seniors close to Sonia enjoyed within the party.
When several of Rahul’s aides – Ajoy Kumar, Pradyot Debbarma, Ashok Tanwar or Jyotiraditya Scindia – quit the Congress, this impression only strengthened. However, a mere glance through the names of those who have signed the recent letter to Sonia is enough to show that frustration with the party’s state of drift is all-pervasive in the Congress now. The signatories include old warhorses like Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Bhupinder Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan, Veerappa Moily and also younger leaders like Jitin Prasad and Milind Deora, among others.
Congress leaders like Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari, both signatories of the recent letter, have consistently been vocal about the need for the party to put an end to the uncertainty over its leadership. While Tharoor has said that given Sonia’s poor health, it is “unfair” to expect her to continue indefinitely as interim party chief, Tewari believes that either the party must extend her interim tenure into a full-term presidency or urge Rahul to take the reins. Tewari, and several other party leaders, believe that if neither of these options is exercised, the party must open the Congress presidency up for elections and follow up the process with polls for the CWC and other organisational posts which, under the Congress constitution, should be filled through intra-party elections.
Another signatory to the letter told Outlook that “it is unfortunately true that no other party leader has the pan-India appeal that the Nehru-Gandhis have and so it is imperative to have Sonia, if Rahul is still reluctant, appointed full-term president but we also need other organizational changes and to fix both responsibility and accountability for work assigned.” Various formulations are being discussed in a fragmented way by different groupings within the party, the leader said, adding that “all these have to be put before the CWC and then the CWC should take a final call on what’s the best way forward”.
Meanwhile, some leaders close to Rahul have also written to the CWC pressing for the Gandhi scion’s return as chief.
“Gandhis are the symbol of sacrifice. Decision by Congress CWC was a majority decision reflecting the will of 1100 AICC, 8800 PCC members, five crore workers and 12 crore supporters who want Rahul Gandhi as their leader,” MP Manickam Tagore said, referring to the 2019 decision of the CWC to name Sonia Gandhi as party president after Rahul declined to accept a unanimous CWC appeal to stay in the post.
Apart from Tagore, Challa Vamshi Chand Reddy, ex Telangana lawmaker and AICC secretary in charge of Maharashtra has also asked for the promotion of Rahul Gandhi as Congress President “without any further delay.” In a letter to the CWC on Sunday, Challa Reddy said any delay in Rahul’s reinstatement would be at the cost of the Congress.
A section of party seniors has been pushing for the need to have Sonia or Rahul as party chief but assisted by “2-4 vice or working presidents” who can share her burden and do the groundwork. There is also a view that the party must revive its constitutionally-mandated mechanism of having a 10-member Congress Parliamentary Board (CPB) that can collectively decide the party’s strategy and view on various issues.
“The current process under which the Congress president alone takes a call on certain aspects of the party after discussion with leaders of her inner circle may have worked when we were organizationally stronger or were in power but today there is a need to break the status quo and give every faction of the party the satisfaction of her/his view being considered seriously,” a CWC member tells Outlook.
Between Rahul’s resignation and Sonia’s appointment as interim Congress chief, various sections of the party had floated different names as possible contenders for the Congress presidency. These included names like P. Chidambaram, Mallikarjun Kharge, Mukul Wasnik, Kumari Selja, Ashok Gehlot, Kamal Nath and some others. Ahead of confirming Sonia’s appointment as interim chief, the CWC had made small groups of party leaders to discuss various names. Sources say none of the groups showed confidence in any of these leaders taking over as Congress president and most of them ended up instead in listing the drawbacks of removing the Nehru-Gandhis from the presidency. Though this may be an indicator of the sycophancy surrounding the Gandhi family, it is also true that given the factional wars within the party, a non-Gandhi will find it extremely difficult to navigate the organisational maze. Now, the same lot of names – and a few additions like that of Rahul aide Rajiv Satav who in the last CWC meet had launched into an unsparing critique of the UPA-era leaders – are being floated for possible nomination as working president or CPB members.
Sources say that the argument that a non-Gandhi party chief will rob Narendra Modi and the BJP of routinely evoking passions against ‘the Dynasty’ is a flawed one. “In the UPA, the Gandhis sat out but that only led to Dr. Singh battling the charge of being a puppet prime minister for 10 years… what is the guarantee that the same won’t happen to a non-Gandhi Congress chief,” asks a leader.
The predominant view within the party, thus seems to be that the Gandhis must stay at the top but also that they “delegate key responsibilities to others”. Nearly all options for resolving the leadership crisis, sources say, revolve around the need to have a team that “has a right synthesis of experience and energy… seniors who are indispensable must stay to guide, juniors must not be sidelined but allowed to work on the ground, perhaps in areas where we have been marginalized the most”. Those hoping that Monday’s CWC meeting will end with the naming of a new Congress chief – or in Sonia’s tenure being renewed for a full term –may, however, be left disappointed and the discussions are unlikely to result in a final decision.
A resolution affirming the party’s intent to make the much-needed changes may be the most likely outcome tomorrow. The larger questions, however, are – how long will the party actually take to implement the organisational changes and whether they will have any significant impact in reversing the party’s crises of attrition and electoral setbacks.
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