TWO DAYS after his party’s massive defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, Rahul Gandhi told the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting on Saturday that he wants to step down as party president. Drawing from history, he told the CWC that in the past, the party has been helmed by a “non-Gandhi”. But the CWC unanimously rejected his offer, although Rahul is said to be firm on his decision.
Rahul, sources said, is open to the idea of leading the party in the Lok Sabha while letting someone else be party president. Sources said he did not reveal his mind on whether he would accede to the CWC’s plea. According to sources, his mother Sonia Gandhi and sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra tried to persuade him, insisting that he should listen to the CWC’s unanimous view, which was recorded in a resolution, and continue to lead the party in one of its most difficult periods. The party later made the resolution public.
Sonia is learnt to have said that she agreed with the CWC’s view, but it was eventually his decision. Party leaders said Priyanka insisted that Rahul should continue, arguing that he should be given more powers to set up new structures and institutional vehicles for fighting the larger battle with the BJP. She was of the view that this was not the time to resign.
Meanwhile, Rahul is learnt to have come down hard on a chief minister and a senior leader following a member’s suggestion that state leaders should be empowered. Rahul, sources said, replied that he had empowered all state leaders, but pointed out that a chief minister and a senior leader from another state had camped in Delhi, leaving the campaign in their respective states, to lobby for tickets for their sons. He said the chief minister had even threatened to resign.
Sources said Rahul told the meeting that the party had regularly elected its presidents from “outside the Gandhi family” during the freedom struggle and after it. While one party leader told The Sunday Express that he was just “recalling a fact in history”, many other leaders said Rahul did not indicate his mind either way.
Sources said former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while asking Rahul to continue, suggested that the party should set up a committee to look into the reasons behind its defeat and suggest corrective action, including on organisational matters.
According to sources, P Chidambaram and some others — including Siddaramaiah and A K Antony — got “emotional” as they persuaded Rahul to take back his decision. Many leaders told him that “we will also all resign”. “There was some theatrics,” said a young leader.
While Antony made the opening remarks, Rahul addressed the meeting at the end. The nearly four-hour-long meeting saw many leaders forcefully listing several reasons for the adverse mandate. As many as 30 leaders spoke at the meeting.
It is learnt that Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, Anand Sharma, Randeep Surjewala and R P N Singh told the CWC that statements made by some leaders on the Balakot air strike proved to be “cannon fodder” for the BJP, which fought the election on the nationalism plank. They pointed out that the mention of dilution of AFSPA and repeal of sedition law in the party’s manifesto also cost it dearly.
Sources said when a couple of leaders spoke about tampering of EVMs, referring to the massive margins of some BJP candidates, leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia and R P N Singh argued that people had voted and the party could not remain in denial. Some leaders referred to structural weaknesses, like the absence of booth committees in many places.
Rahul is learnt to have said that the battle was not just ideological or political but also religious. With Rahul making it clear that he did not want to continue, the CWC adopted a resolution praising his “tireless efforts”. The resolution, moved by Mallikarjun Kharge, said the CWC “unanimously and with one voice rejected” Rahul’s offer to resign and “requested the Congress president for his leadership and guidance in these challenging times.”
“The CWC unanimously called upon the Congress president to lead the party in its ideological battle and to champion the cause of India’s youth, the farmers, the SC/ST/OBCs, the minorities, the poor and the deprived sections. The CWC fully recognises the challenges, the failures and the shortcomings, resulting into this mandate. The CWC recommends a thorough introspection and requested the Congress president for a complete overhaul and a detailed restructuring at every level of the party. A plan to this effect shall come into force at the earliest,” it said.
Responding to questions at a press conference later, Antony disagreed that the party’s performance was “disastrous” and said the “party will go through” the results in detail and “all issues raised during this election by everybody.” He said the party will come out with its considered conclusion after that introspection.
Asked about the report he authored after the 2014 debacle, Antony said some of the recommendations he had made were implemented while some were not.
Asked whether some working presidents would be appointed, Surjewala said Rahul has been authorised to carry out a complete overhaul and restructuring of the party. “It has to be done expeditiously. Now it is up to the Congress president,” he said. He said the decimation of the party in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh was a matter of serious concern which needs thorough introspection and corrective action. “We are open to doing so,” he said.
Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath has resigned from the post of state Congress president.