At the first meeting of the Working Committee (CWC) in five months, Sonia Gandhi sent an unambiguous message that the reins of the party remain firmly in the family’s hands, while indicating her disapproval of leaders of the G-23 who have been demanding “full-time and effective leadership” for the party. Gandhi said she was “a full-time and hands-on Congress president”, adding that she “always appreciated frankness” and “there is no need to speak to me through the media”.
As per the schedule for organisational elections approved by the top decision-making body of the party on Saturday, Gandhi will continue as interim president for nearly a year more, with polls for the post of AICC president to take place between August 21 and September 20, 2022.
Meanwhile, one leader after another made their wish clear Saturday as to who they wanted as the next president: Rahul Gandhi. When some like Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi and AICC general secretary Harish Rawat asked him to take over immediately without waiting for the organisational elections, Rahul reportedly said he would “consider” it and can’t be “bullied”.
What was clear was that Rahul, who had resigned as Congress president after the party’s 2019 Lok Sabha election debacle, was now less reluctant to return to the helm. However, even as he is running the party for all practical purposes, he reportedly wants the takeover through “due process” and organisational elections.
“He does not want to take over just because some CWC members have asked him… If somebody wants to contest against him… they can do so,” a leader close to him said.
In her address to the CWC, Sonia Gandhi was blunt. “I am, if you will allow me to say so, a full-time and hands-on Congress president,” she said, adding that the party leadership in the last two years has “never let issues of public importance and concern go unaddressed”.
Sources said it was senior leader A K Antony who began the chorus for Rahul. Almost every other leader — including Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel, Ambika Soni and Randeep Singh Surjewala — echoed Antony.
Rahul’s assertiveness was reflected in his statement at the meeting that the media in Delhi “cannot dictate the party’s politics and decisions”, and that it was he who had informed Channi about the decision to appoint him as CM. “He broke down when I told him,” Rahul said.
the Congress has ensured there is status quo for one more year. Given the five-year tenure of the post, the organisational elections would have been held next year anyway.
Gehlot raised the question of accessibility to Rahul, and by evening, he had a meeting with Rahul along with AICC in-charge Ajay Maken.
With party leaders clearly lining up behind the Gandhis, the G-23 leaders appeared much mellowed Saturday. The last CWC meeting, held in the wake of the party’s defeat in the Assembly elections in May, had seen two of them, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma, questioning the electoral strategy. On Saturday, Azad, Sharma and the third G-23 member present, Mukul Wasnik, were on the defensive as several leaders followed Sonia Gandhi’s lead and attacked them.
After the meeting, AICC general secretary K C Venugopal indicated how smoothly matters had gone for the family, saying, “Some of the media reported there will be storm, thunder.”
Another important take-away from the CWC meeting was the lack of a discussion on Opposition unity, though the Congress urged all “democratic parties and forces” to join hands against the Modi government. While no one broached that topic, Dinesh Gundu Rao — the AICC in-charge of Goa — expressed apprehension over the Trinamool Congress’s push in the state.
Seeking Rahul’s return as Congress president, Channi said he was “our property… Congress property”. Priyanka said Rahul was their leader. Tariq Hameed Karra asked Rahul to be “kind” to his mother and not “burden” her further. One leader said Rahul replied he would take his own “conscious decision”.
Sonia Gandhi said: “In the past two years, a large number of our colleagues, particularly the younger ones, have taken on leadership roles in taking party policies and programmes to the people– be it the agitation of farmers, provision of relief during the pandemic, highlighting issues of concern, atrocities on Dalits, Adivasis and minorities… destruction of the public sector.”
Gandhi added: “You are aware that I have been taking (issues) up with the Prime Minister as have Dr Manmohan Singh and Rahul ji. I have been interacting with like-minded political parties. We have issued joint statements… coordinated our strategy in Parliament.”
She then said: “I have always appreciated frankness. There is no need to speak to me through the media. So let us all have a free and honest discussion. But what should get communicated outside the four walls of this room is the collective decision of the CWC… The entire organisation wants revival of the Congress. But this requires unity and keeping the party’s interests paramount. Above all, it requires self-control and discipline.”
While Gandhi did not name anyone, it was clear she was hinting at the G-23 leaders. A fortnight ago, Kapil Sibal, among the most vocal of the G-23 leaders, had said at a press conference that, “In our party, at the moment, there is no president, so we don’t know who is taking these decisions. We know and yet we don’t know.”
Sources said other leaders too, such as Jitender Singh, Ajay Maken and Surjewala, attacked the G-23 without naming them, asserting that public pronouncements by leaders were weakening the party.
Azad and Sharma replied that they had never questioned Gandhi’s leadership. Sharma added that he was party to the CWC decision that had asked Gandhi to take over as Congress president after Rahul had stepped down. Sharma also pointed out that Rahul had abruptly resigned at the time, ignoring requests to reconsider.
Referring to the organisational elections, Gandhi said: “I am acutely conscious that I have been interim Congress president since the CWC asked me to return in this capacity in 2019. We had thereafter, you may recall, finalised a roadmap for electing a regular president by June 30, 2021. But the second wave of Covid-19 overtook the country and this deadline was extended… Today is the occasion for bringing clarity once and for all.”
As per the schedule approved by the CWC, a membership drive will be held between November 1 and March 31, 2022, which will be followed by elections to presidents and office-bearers at the block committee, district committee and PCC levels from April 16, culminating in the election of AICC president between August 21 and September 20 next year.
An AICC plenary session for “election of CWC members and other bodies by AICC members” will take place in September/October.
On the forthcoming Assembly elections in five states, Gandhi said “our preparations began a while back… If we are united, disciplined and focus on the party’s interests alone, I am confident that we will do well.”
In her concluding remarks, Gandhi struck a conciliatory note, saying she was very happy at the frank discussions and that the meeting was held in an atmosphere of cordiality and bonhomie.
At a press conference later, Venugopal and communication department head Surjewala said: “Every member of the CWC said they have faith in Sonia Gandhi and applauded her leadership… work efficiency. And they rejected all these media reports about the interim president and full-time president and requested her to lead the party till the next organisational elections. Many members also demanded that Rahul Gandhi take over. There was almost unanimity on that. Rahul Gandhi thanked everyone and said he is grateful,” Surjewala said.
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