The five-hour-long meeting that Congress president Sonia Gandhi had Saturday with her colleagues, including the core team of 23 leaders who wrote to her seeking sweeping reforms within, may have helped break the ice but the chill is far from over.
The letter-writers remained firm on their demands that included internal elections at all levels and establishment of a “collective leadership mechanism.”
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, it is learnt, indulged in some “plain speaking” but gave no indication on whether he was willing to return as Congress president. And apart from a few leaders – among them were Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, A K Antony, Harish Rawat, Ambika Soni and Ajay Maken – there was not exactly a chorus for his return either. The party is now thinking of a chintan shivir– on the lines of the ones it had held in Pachmarhi and Shimla in 1998 and 2003 when it was in the opposition — for a wider and deeper brainstorming.
Sources said the group of 23, represented by Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Manish Tewari, Prithviraj Chavan, Vivek Tankha, Shashi Tharoor and Bhupinder Singh Hooda, articulated their demands clearly even thanking Gandhi for the meeting and creating the platform for a dialogue.
Both sides said the meeting was just the beginning of a long process towards a roadmap and plan of action to fight the ruling BJP.
Sonia Gandhi said issues have to be discussed and resolved and the party has to be “one family.” The letter-writers said they were neither dissenters nor rebels. Some of them later told The Indian Express that the meeting itself was a recognition of the concerns they had raised. “The ice is broken. This was the resumption of the process of internal dialogue which is absolutely essential for the renewal of the Congress,” a senior leader said.
Significantly, P Chidambaram echoed some of the demands made by the letter-writers: establishment of a parliamentary board, election to PCCs and DCCs and the empowerment of state Congress units in appointments. He said general secretaries and in-charge of states should not micro-manage affairs.
When Chidambaram said the Congress has a fighting chance in Tamil Nadu, Rahul retorted saying the Congress is just an adjunct of the DMK and it is the DMK which is fighting the election. He also reminded former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath, as also Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, that the RSS was very well-entrenched in the bureaucracy in both the states.
Rahul said he was ready to do whatever the party wanted but sources in both the camps said that remark was not in the context of him returning to the helm.
The letter-writers underlined the challenges: two successive general election losses and the movement of youth away from the party. The party has been vanquished in the Hindi heartland and “unless and until there is a revival, there is no hope,” they said. They made it clear that there should be an election for the post of Congress president, to CWC and to posts at all levels.
Azad pointed out the issues need to be discussed in detail for a plan of action. Signs of a chill were evident when none of the letter-writers was willing to join in the briefing. Chavan, who was among the signatories, stepped out after Sonia asked him to do so along with Pawan Kumar Bansal and Rawat.
“It was a free-wheeling discussion. Everyone participated. Whatever anyone had to say, wanted to say, he took full time to say it,” said Bansal. “Nobody was critical of Rahul Gandhi. Everybody supported him. Soniaji said we all are one big family and we all should work to strengthen the party. Rahul Gandhi also talked about strengthening the party.”
Rahul said the party should prepare its workers, like soldiers in battle, to clearly understand the Congress ideology and the purpose of their fight. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra spoke about shortcomings in the organization – the need for inter-party communication and reaching out to the young.
In the end, Rahul, sources said, spoke again saying he had the highest respect for the seniors and that he and his sister had seen them working with his father as a child. He said the seniors are the assets of the party and each one of them brings to the table wisdom and experience.
One of the letter-writers, without taking the name of Randeep Surjewala, referred to his remarks Friday that all issues in the party stood resolved with the announcement of the next election of the Congress president and said that “if there were no issues, what was the need for the meeting.”