Sonia to continue as interim Congress president, 'rebels' fall in line

Topics Sonia Gandhi | Congress | CWC meet

Sonia Gandhi to remain interim president for six months or longer until an All India Congress Committee (AICC) session is held to ‘select or elect’ a successor. Rahul remained non-committal on returning as party chief (Photo: PTI)
The Gandhi family had to defend itself aggressively against charges by Congress members that it had been negligent or lax in providing leadership and yet refused to cede control of the party.

Sonia Gandhi will continue to be interim president for six months till an All India Congress Committee (AICC) session can be held to "select or elect" a successor. However, Rahul Gandhi remained noncommittal as members spoke at a seven-hour meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC). Several asked him to resume as president, but he suggested instead that a committee could be formed to aid and advice the interim president as part of collective leadership.

The CWC meeting was called amid a letter signed by 23 top leaders – former chief ministers and former union ministers among them– that asked the interim president to arrange for a "full time" and "active" leader to run the party. The letter did not name an alternative and it didn’t challenge the Gandhi family’s claim to stewardship of the party. It noted that the Congress tended to be in reactive rather than active in fighting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and suggested a more proactive leadership was in order.

Resolution seeks 'discipline'

The Congress leadership hit back sharply. The CWC passed a resolution saying the need of the hour was to strengthen the hands of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and "no one can be allowed to undermine the party and the leadership". The voices of the two leaders had "inspired crores of Congress workers" who had heard Sonia Gandhi target the government on a range of issues. The resolution warned that inner party decisions cannot be aired publicly for this violates "propriety and discipline": a hint that further criticism will not be tolerated.

Account of what happened at the meeting vary. Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi both attacked the visible face of the "rebels”, Ghulam Nabi Azad, who was present at the CWC. Sonia Gandhi said she was "hurt" but Rahul charged that those who had signed the letter were traitors to the Congress cause as they were in collusion with the BJP. Stung at this Azad offered to resign and Kapil Sibal, another signatory, said publicly in a tweet that he had never sided with the BJP in three decades of his career in public life, instead offering evidence of how he had fought the BJP.

Soon after, Rahul telephoned Sibal to clarify he had said no such thing. Sibal withdrew the tweet and Azad also appeared to recalibrate his position. However, others said Rahul Gandhi did, in fact hit out at the leaders. “There were 50 people at the meeting. They heard it,” said a former chief minister.

Other faultlines were visible at the meeting. Senior leader A K Antony, former Kerala chief minister and former defence minister, asked Rahul Gandhi to take over the party. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked Sonia Gandhi to continue at the helm of affairs.

The 'rebel' leaders said they were forced to write the letter to Sonia Gandhi after Azad’s requests for a meeting with ‘her were never acknowledged. “Azad is leader of the opposition. If even he can’t get an appointment….what else are we supposed to do” said a former chief minister.

Azad was the focus of criticism at the CWC meeting  as leaders like Ahmad Patel, Rajiv Satav and Ambika Soni accused him of "disloyalty". A K Antony said it was a "cruel letter".

Mukul Wasnik, one of the signatories, said: "I am what I am because of the Congress. I signed it because I thought it would improve the working of the party. If you feel you need to take action against me, I am ready to be punished."

Some of those who signed the letter, which was delivered on 7 August, said more than 300 people had been ready to sign, but for tactical reasons they took signatures only from leaders of standing. “There is a groundswell of support for the idea that there is no leadership of the party. Rahul Gandhi has lost confidence completely. We never said we don’t want him, or anyone from the family: we just said: ‘if you don’t want to do it, let someone else do it,” said a leader.

These leaders acknowledged that the leak of the letter did them some damage. “We did not leak the letter. We drafted it (Kapil Sibal and Shashi Tharoor were the draftsmen) and sent it to 10 Jan Path on 7 August. After that, it is possible that the General Secretary (organization), KC Venugopal let it slip out. Then an expanded CWC was called and we were made to look as if we wanted the Gandhi family out. That was not our purpose” explained one of the signatories.

“Six months is a long time” said a signatory when asked what was expected next, referring to Sonia Gandhi’s interim tenure. “Right now, the family’s reaction is: ‘who are you? What right do you have to question us’. But are you seeing any reaction from the party’s front organizations? The NSUI? The Youth Congress? There is a coterie around Rahul Gandhi that benefits from this state of affairs. But this is our party as well.”

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