On the eve of a crucial meeting of the Congress Working Committee Saturday, where the next party chief is likely to be named, Rahul Gandhi asked all party Chief Ministers, state chiefs, MPs and party office bearers Friday to be part of the process of picking his successor. The move is seen as an attempt to ensure that the well-entrenched and powerful Delhi CWC clique does not manage to push a name of their choice. While Mukul Wasnik and Mallikarjun Kharge emerged the frontrunners to head the party, the decision to open up the process has injected an element of uncertainty.
“The purpose is how to defang the CWC meeting tomorrow,” a Congress leader told The Indian Express, after Rahul made known his decision at a meeting of country-wide party leaders convened to discuss the Jammu and Kashmir situation and the party’s response.
Another leader said the Kashmir meeting was a “ruse” as the idea was to ensure that all of them are in Delhi so that they are available for consultation Saturday. All have been asked to reach the AICC headquarters by 11 AM.
The CWC meeting Saturday takes place amid a clear divergence of views between young leaders and the party’s old guard. And perhaps for the first time since Rahul resigned, Sonia Gandhi’s opinion was sought Friday by the senior leadership.
Rahul, sources said, indulged in some “plain speaking” at the meeting, making in known that “leaders can slide away” but the party will not compromise on principles. Hours earlier, former Congress chief whip in Rajya Sabha Bhubaneshwar Kalita joined the BJP.
Rahul asked leaders whether the Congress would have got more votes had it supported the Centre’s decision. He said this after many of those who attended the meeting spoke about public mood being in favour of scrapping Article 370 of the Constitution and argued that the party could lose votes.
Many leaders spoke about the uncertainty that has gripped the party and asked him to continue as Congress president. He refused but told them not to worry, arguing that the next Congress chief will be in place within the next few days after wider consultations.
Sources said Wasnik and Kharge remain the frontrunners but at least three CWC members told The Indian Express that they would not agree and that “it would be difficult for them (the old guard) to push” those names.
Kharge and Wasnik are Dalits. While Kharge was Leader of the Congress in the last Lok Sabha, Wasnik has risen through ranks with rich organisational experience. He was president of both the NSUI and the Youth Congress in the 1980s.
Rahul had announced his decision to step down at the CWC held on May 25. But three months on, the party is yet to zero in on his successor, who will have the onerous task of resurrecting the grand old party.
The Gandhis have so far kept themselves out of the exercise to find a new leader. Congress leaders, however, admit that the Gandhis still retain the crucial say and veto in the selection of the next party chief.
What is almost certain is that a non-Gandhi could become party president for the first time in over two decades. A top leader said there could be various scenarios – the CWC can either appoint a provisional president or task a group of leaders with finding a new president in the event of sharp divisions. Or it could announce a timeline to hold elections for the post of Congress chief.
The informal discussions held so far indicate that there are multiple views within the party. Many, like Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, believe the next president should be a young leader while other party veterans argue that experience should be given primacy and a third section believes the next president should be a Dalit, which will send a positive message.
Rahul, sources said, told the meeting that he was happy that the Congress is under pressure to appoint a new president and this will jolt the party into action. He said the tiger maintained its ferocity even under pressure. Sources said that a Congress chief of a northern state told the meeting that certain names doing the rounds for the party president’s post were being propped up by vested corporate interests.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra did not speak at the meeting. Neither did the others members of the CWC.