Friday, Jun 02, 2023

Congress plenary: Gandhis in the background, script plays out as per plan

No elections to CWC, permanent seats set for Sonia, Rahul Gandhi in panel, dissenting voices few; Mallikarjun Kharge to nominate members “after consulting the Gandhis”

Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge with party leaders KC Venugopal, Ambika Soni and Pawan Kumar Bansal at the Steering Committee Meeting during the 85th Plenary Session of the Indian National Congress, in Raipur. (PTI) Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge with party leaders KC Venugopal, Ambika Soni and Pawan Kumar Bansal at the Steering Committee Meeting during the 85th Plenary Session of the Indian National Congress, in Raipur. (PTI)
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Congress plenary: Gandhis in the background, script plays out as per plan
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In the end, everything went according to script. The Congress leadership, which was not keen on holding elections to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) despite its public pronouncements to the contrary, ensured that the high-powered Steering Committee — functioning in place of the CWC — empowered party president Mallikarjun Kharge to nominate the new panel.

It also got the Steering Committee to approve amendments allowing for permanent seats in the decision-making body for former party presidents and prime ministers — thus automatically including Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, and Manmohan Singh.

After two-and-a-half hours of arguments and counter-arguments on holding of elections, Kharge was given the go-ahead to name the members. Now vested with more authority than ever, Kharge said he will consult Sonia and Rahul and carry out the exercise in the coming days.

Among the G23 leaders, Anand Sharma jettisoned the ginger group’s demand for elections and sought a “consensus-based approach”, while P Chidambaram kept silent on a call made by him only a few days ago seeking polls to the CWC.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who had pulled out of the Congress presidential race, too spoke against elections to the CWC, saying these are not ideal when the PCC and AICC delegates are not elected.

By keeping the suspense on the question of elections till the first day of the AICC plenary, the leadership had already ensured that probable candidates get no time to lobby with the 1,338 elected AICC delegates — the electorate — before landing in Raipur.

In 1997, when the CWC elections were held last, senior leaders and probable candidates had spent days garnering support.

Besides, the Congress leadership reached out to some seniors who it thought could demand elections. Perhaps, hence the surprising statement some days ago by Shashi Tharoor, who had contested for the post of Congress president last year, that he would not be in the fray this time.


The next part of the plan played out at the Steering Committee meeting Friday.

First, the Gandhis — former presidents Sonia and Rahul, and AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra — stayed away. This allowed Kharge and AICC general secretary (Organisation) K C Venugopal to tap into the overwhelming mood against elections at the Steering Committee. Most of the members argued that the bitter contest that might result could turn the plenary into a factional battlefield.

The schedule for possible elections read out by Venugopal at the outset also indicated which way the wind was blowing: it envisaged filing of nominations from 5 pm to 9 pm Friday, scrutiny and withdrawal of nominations on Saturday, and polling and counting on Sunday.


In other words, the entire plenary would be overtaken by the exercise, overshadowing resolutions critical of the Modi government and the BJP, and appreciative of the Bharat Jodo Yatra which have been lined up.

“The session would have been derailed. They knew it. So they announced a schedule which was unworkable,” a leader said.

Pramod Tiwari, the Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh, was the first to oppose elections to the CWC, saying these would weaken the party and may not be good optics ahead of coming state and Lok Sabha elections. He also argued that smaller states with lesser delegates could not hope for representation in the CWC in case of polling.

With Venugopal having spoken on similar lines to some leaders in the last few days, Tiwari was understood to be speaking for the leadership. Among those who opposed elections was T Subbarami Reddy.

Sources said that among those who argued for polls were Digvijaya Singh and Ajay Maken. At the same time, Singh said he would go with whatever consensus emerged at the meeting.

Abhishek Singhvi spoke for CWC elections but suggested that these be held at a later stage, delinked from the plenary, perhaps after the 2024 Lok Sabha battle.


Party leaders also took note that among those who spoke for “consensus” rather than elections was Anand Sharma. The largely defunct G23 had earlier sought elections to the CWC and the central election committee, which decides the party’s candidates as among its main demands. Sharma is learnt to have said that while he continues to favour elections at all levels, “as per the party constitution”, the times called for a consensus approach.

However, Sharma and Maken disagreed with Pramod Tiwari that an election would be detrimental for smaller states, saying that half of the CWC was nominated anyway and such anomalies could be addressed.


Maken also countered Tiwari’s argument that elections to the CWC could divide the party in a crucial election year, saying Assembly polls are a regular feature in India and there will never be a period when there are no elections.

Sharma’s other suggestion was expansion of the strength of the CWC, which was agreed to by the Steering Committee. The panel then went on to approve a proposal to reserve permanent seats for former party presidents and ex-prime ministers, taking its overall strength to above 30.

As per the Congress constitution, the CWC consists of the president of the party, its leader in Parliament, and 23 other members, of whom 12 are elected by the AICC and the rest appointed by the party president.


Kharge gets a breather as an election could have thrown up unexpected results. Moreover, elected members could be more assertive as they would not owe their seat at the CWC high table to him.

Talking to reporters, Congress communications head Jairam Ramesh said the “dominant and overwhelming view” was to empower Kharge to nominate members to the CWC.

He said the decision was taken “keeping in mind the political challenges facing the country, the Congress… and keeping in mind the far-reaching amendments that we are going to bring about in our party’s Constitution”. Ramesh listed amendments such as providing 50 per cent reservation in the CWC for SCs, STs, OBCs, minorities, women and youth below the age of 50.

Seeking to insulate the Gandhis from the decision, he noted that they were not even consulted during the meeting. “There was no video-conferencing. No one was on Zoom. The members present gave their views,” he said.

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Asked specifically why the Gandhis were absent, Ramesh parried the question.

First published on: 24-02-2023 at 19:45 IST
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