After a nearly five-hour marathon meeting of senior leaders — including key members of the group of 23 (G-23) dissenters — at party president Sonia Gandhi’s 10 Janpath residence on Saturday morning, the Congress party decided to to hold a chintan shivir (brainstorming conclave) on the lines of the Shimla and Panchmarhi meetings to decide on its future.
However, such a brainstorming session, , will be held only after the COVID situation improves, said sources.
Saturday’s meeting on the lawns of 10 Janpath, saw renewed calls for Rahul Gandhi to take over as party president.
However, stating that he was willing to work towards strengthening the party, Mr. Gandhi is learnt to have stressed on the importance of choosing a new party chief through organisational elections, the process for which has already started.
Party veterans like Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha,, Ghulam Nabi Azad, and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Kamal Nath, raised about old guard versus young turks in the party.
Mr Gandhi responded by stating that he valued their contributions and acknowledged that many of them worked with his father. He, however, is said to have stressed on the need to make space for younger leaders and the need to bridge the communication gap, said a source.
This was the first time Ms. Gandhi met senior leaders including those from G-23 in person since the pandemic restrictions kicked in.
In August, the G-23 leaders had written a letter to Ms. Gandhi arguing for “collective leadership,” organisational revamp, internal elections, decentralised decision-making process and the need for an “active and full-time leadership”. Though none referred to the letter, the dissenters reiterated that elected and representative bodies were key to the party’s revival.
From G-23 letter writers, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, Deputy Leader Anand Sharma, former chief ministers of Haryana and Maharashtra Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Prithviraj Chavan respectively, former union ministers Manish Tewari and Shashi Tharoor and Rajya Sabha member Vivek Tankha attended the meet .
A key member of the rebel group, Kapil Sibal, however, was not present due to pre-scheduled travel abroad.
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, former union ministers A.K. Antony, P. Chidambaram, Ambika Soni, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath, general secretaries Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Ajay Maken, Pawan Kumar Bansal, Harish Rawat and Bhakta Charan Das were also present.
Interestingly, two key general secretaries, K.C. Venugopal, in-charge of organisation and communications chief, Randeep Surjewala — both considered close to Mr Gandhi — were not part of the meeting.
"Discussions were held on a positive note at the meeting where leaders talked about how to strengthen the party at all levels. Congress chief Sonia Gandhi said we all are one big family and we all should work to strengthen the party. Rahul Gandhi also talked about strengthening the party,"Mr Bansal said after the meeting.
A party leader said that while dissenters didn’t have any objection to Mr Gandhi’s leadership, leaders like Ms Soni, Mr Maken, Mr Rawat, Mr Antony, Mr Gehlot urged the former party chief to take over the reins of the party again.
Mr Gandhi is learnt to have told the leaders that it is not about him becoming the party president but about rebuilding the institution and strengthening the party.
Talking about political challenge faced by the party, Mr Gandhi told Mr Nath that despite being the CM, the government in the State was being steered by bureaucrats who owned their allegiance to the BJP-RSS.
When Mr. Chidambaram talked about good propsects in upcoming Assembly election in Tamil Nadu, Mr Gandhi said the Congress was an ‘adjunct’ to the DMK in the State.
The dissenters, said sources, also appreciated Ms. Gandhi’s effort to “build consensus and being democratic in the true Congress tradition”.
While both Mr Nath and Mr. Chidamabaram raised the issue of people leaving the party and a sense of drift, the former Finance Minister talked about restoring the Parliamentary Board to take important policy decisions, strengthening block and booth level committees. He is also learnt to have expressed objection to the ‘general secretary approach,’ with some going to the States they are supposed to handle as ‘tourists’.
Interjecting at the suggestion of the Parliamentary Board, Ms. Gandhi reportedly pointed out that it was done away with during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s time.
Mr Chavan stressed on having elected delegates at the State level as well to the Congress Working Committee (CWC).
Arguing for a ‘ Chintan Shivir [brainstorming conclave] on the pattern of Pachmarhi conclave  and Shimla , Mr. Tewari reportedly stressed on the need to prepare a blue-print for 2024 Lok Sabha elections with effective leadership, robust organisation, ideological clarity and a counter narrative to the BJP.
He also talked about Congress not being a force in States like Tamil Nadu, West Bengal among others for decades.
Ms Gandhi agreed for a chintan shivir once the COVID situation improves and agreed for more meetings in future, party insiders said.
Ms. Vadra is learnt to have stressed on the need to focus on organisation and workers at the grass root level and the need to have a better internal communications on crucial issues. Mr Sharma also suggested that the Congress leaders from Kashmir to Kanyakumari should speak in one voice on all important national issues.
Stressing the need to maintain the integrity and sincerity of the dialogue process, Mr Azad reportedly asked if the claim made at a press conference on Friday that all issues were sorted was true, then what was the need for a marathon meeting.
Sources said the meeting also discussed the the COVID situation, the impact of lockdown, state of the economy, ongoing farmers’ agitations and the government’s decision not to hold the winter session of Parliament.