Sonia Gandhi will continue to be the interim president of the Congress until the All India Congress Committee (AICC) holds its next session, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) said in resolution on Monday, after a marathon virtual meeting.
The seven hour meeting witnessed high drama with Ms. Gandhi reiterating her intention to step down, Rahul Gandhi questioning the timing of a letter from a section of party leaders seeking a leadership change and calling it "an insult to his mother", sharp comments against the dissenters, Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad offering to resign over barbs from colleagues and Ahmed Patel asking Mr. Gandhi to take back the reins of the party.
The meeting also witnessed verbal exchanges between members supporting the Gandhis and the dissenters, with the party’s leader in the Lok Sabha leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury accusing Mr. Azad of “defending the indefensible”, forcing Ms. Gandhi to intervene.
The CWC session was prompted by the letter, written by 23 senior Congress leaders including Mr. Azad, Rajya Sabha Deputy Leader Anand Sharma, Lok Sabha members Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari among others, which questioned the party’s style of functioning, demanded collective leadership and talked of a ‘full time and visible party president’.
At least four signatories to the letter, Mr. Azad, Mr. Sharma, Mukul Wasnik and Jitin Prasada are members of the CWC and were present at the meeting. Though some of them expressed regret for hurting sentiments, they maintained that they didn’t speak against the Gandhis. They said they were ready to face any penal action but would always remain in the Congress.
The resolution at the end of the meeting sought to paper over the rifts. “The CWC, reflecting the overwhelming view and desire of the rank and file of the Congress, unanimously resolved to strengthen the hands of Smt. Sonia Gandhi and Shri. Rahul Gandhi in every possible way. The CWC makes it clear that no one will be or can be permitted to undermine or weaken the party and its leadership at this juncture,” party general secretary (organisation) K.C. Venugopal and chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said, reading out resolution at a press conference.
The CWC also authorised Ms. Gandhi to carry out organisational changes and accordingly a committee will be constituted to assist her in day-to-day functioning.
In her concluding remarks, Ms Gandhi said, “The Congress is one big family and I don’t hold anything against anyone. But all, especially senior leaders should raise concerns at the party forum only.”
The stormy meet got underway with Mr. Venugopal reading out an August 20 letter in which Ms. Gandhi asked the general secretary to start the process of appointing the next party chief.
Former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh then called the letter from the 23 senior leaders ‘unfortunate’ and asked Ms. Gandhi to continue until the next AICC session. Echoing him, senior Kerala leader and former defence minister A.K. Antony called “the contents of the letter cruel” and asked how could party leaders write a letter that weakens the High command as well as the party.
Speaking after them, Rahul Gandhi then questioned the timing of the letter when the Congress was vulnerable, fighting the BJP in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and his mother was unwell and hospitalised.
“Rahul ji said the BJP attacks the Gandhi family because of ideology but he was surprised to see our own leaders doing so and that too leaked in the media. He said it was an insult to his mother,” a CWC member said who didn’t wish to be identified.
Talking about the letter episode, former Union minister Bhanwar Jitendra Singh, known to be close to Mr. Gandhi, said there are Jaichands or traitors in the Congress party.
Later the party clarified that Mr. Gandhi had not accused the dissenting leaders of "colluding with the BJP" as was initially reported by a section of the media.
Senior leader Ahmed Patel said he never expected Mr. Azad, Mr. Sharma and Mr. Wasnik to write a letter since he had told them that all of them could meet the Congress president. Referring to media leaks, he pointed out that several media outlets were giving a ‘running commentary’ of the closed-door CWC proceedings.
Mr. Azad asserted that selected portions of the letter were leaked to the media, and that the group had never uttered a word against the Gandhi family. He offered his resignation over sharp comments from members that they had acted at the behest of the BJP. He even cited media leaks of CWC proceedings to plead ignorance.
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Mr. Azad was targetted by many CWC members, with A. Chella Kumar going to the extent of wondering why one former Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Chief Minister was never detained by the Centre post dilution of Article 370 when all others were. Mr. Azad responded that one should see parliamentary records to know how much he attacked the Modi government.
Mr. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said Mr. Azad was comparing "chalk with cheese" by referring to the media leak of CWC meet with the letter against the leadership. He also asked Ms. Gandhi to form a ‘golden triangle’ by having Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Rahul as part of a team.
While Ambika Soni said the Congress president can take disciplinary action, both Mr. Sharma and Mr. Wasnik said they had flagged issues concerning the party.
Mr. Sharma reiterated his stance about the shortcomings in the party’s functioning and asserted that his colleagues could not castigate and malign him since he had been in the party ever since he turned 18 and would die a Congressman.
Among the younger leaders backing the Gandhis, R.P.N. Singh talked about the freedom to raise any issue in the CWC; Rajeev Satav expressed pain at former Youth Congress leaders (Mr. Wasnik, Mr. Sharma and Mr. Tewari) being part of the dissenters group.
Chief Ministers (CM) of Congress ruled States also rallied behind the Gandhis, with Punjab CM Amarinder Singh expressing hurt at the letter.
CWC member from J&K Tariq Karra proposed that Sonia Gandhi should be made party president for a lifetime.
Countering demands for collective leadership, Mr. Ahmed Patel asked if UPA ministers (a reference to Mr. Sibal) had gone to meet Yoga guru Ramdev at the airport after consulting the former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and the Congress chief.