After marathon CWC meeting, it is back to status quo on leadership issue in Congress

Published : August 25, 2020 16:53 IST

Congress president Sonia Gandhi. A file picture. Photo: Vijay Verma/PTI

A day after the seven-hour-long Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting via videoconferencing discussed at length the open letter by 23 senior leaders seeking substantive changes in the party structure, including a “full time and effective leadership” that is both “visible” and “active” in the field, the grand old party of India remains where it was before but for some assurances about concrete and time-bound measures to the address the concerns raised in the letter.

In practical terms, the meeting decided that Sonia Gandhi would continue as interim president (a position she has held for over a year now) and that a session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) would be convened in the next four to six months to elect a new president. Evidently, this means maintaining the status quo for the present along with the promise of a more creative and structured future course of action. All through August 24 the flutterings within the grand old party created their share of excitement before the “unadventurous and unenterprising decision” “was taken.

The meeting was necessitated by the August 23 letter of 23 senior leaders, including Ghulam Nabi Azad, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. The other signatories were leaders who have held or continue to hold senior positions in the party, including as members of the CWC. Many of them were Ministers in Congress governments of the past. Among the signatories were Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari, Shashi Tharoor, Vivek Tankha, M. Veerappa Moily, Mukul Wasnik, Jitin Prasada, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Prithviraj Chavan, P.J. Kurian, Ajay Singh, Renuka Chaudhary, Milind Deora, Sandeep Dixit, Raj Babbar, Arvinder Singh Lovely, Kaul Singh Thakur, Akhilesh Prasad Singh, former Haryana Speaker Kuldeep Sharma and former Delhi Speaker Yoganand Shastri. Apart from the demand for a “full time and effective leadership” which is both “visible” and “active”, the letter also called for democratic elections to the CWC and the urgent establishment of an institutional leadership mechanism to collectively guide the party’s revival.

The first reaction to the letter from the High Command, late in the evening on August 23, was in the form of Sonia Gandhi’s signal that she would resign as interim Congress president. This gesture, apparently, was in continuation of an acknowledgment that the spirit of the letter was in keeping with the larger interests of the party. However, by the next morning this position had changed and the voices of those opposing the contents of the letter, even questioning the personal interests of those who signed it, gathered momentum within the party. The virtual CWC meeting crystallised this trend. Most of those present at the meeting slammed the 23 leaders, questioned their intent and the timing of the letter. Almost all of these critics iterated their loyalty to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi and went onto proclaim their “resolve to strengthen the hands of the Nehru-Gandhi family”.

The meeting started with Sonia Gandhi stating that she was unwilling to continue as interim president, following which K.C. Venugopal, AICC general secretary in-charge of organisation, read out Sonia Gandhi’s letter asking the CWC to “begin deliberation” to start the process to find a full-time president. Almost on cue there was a chorus asking Rahul Gandhi to come back to the top position of the party. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and senior leader A.K. Antony asserted that Sonia Gandhi should continue in the top post until a full-time president is elected. Antony, apparently termed letter as “cruel”.

Others like Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and Ambika Soni demanded disciplinary action against the leaders who signed the letter. Soni targeted Azad directly and stated that he became Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister because Sonia Gandhi had campaigned in Srinagar ignoring security concerns.

Chowdhury challenged the leaders who wrote the letter and sought to know “what is the panacea” they have at their disposal to revive the party. AICC treasurer Ahmed Patel apparently targeted Anand Sharma, saying he had misinterpreted the concept of collective leadership and asked whether he meant that Sonia Gandhi should sit at home. Patel also demanded that Rahul Gandhi come back as Congress president. Senior leader and former Union Minister P. Chidambaram took a measured position. He did not refer to the letter or to those who had written it. He said there were certain issues which need to be addressed but did not elaborate. But overall, the majority chose to attack the letter and its signatories.

After these pointed attacks, Rahul Gandhi, reportedly intervened to say that Sonia Gandhi’s continuation as interim president cannot be open-ended and that a new president should be elected as early as possible. The time frame of six months to complete the election process was also first suggested by Rahul Gandhi and later seconded by his sister and party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi. With this the stage was set for Sonia Gandhi’s closing remarks, and she apparently asserted that she did not hold any “ill-will” against those who wrote the letter. “Let’s move ahead… what has happened has happened,” was, reportedly her line. “We are a large family. We have differences and different views on many occasions, but in the end we come together as one. The need of the hour is to fight for the cause of the people and the forces that are failing this country… Organisational issues are always addressed and the process of constitution and reconstitution is a continuous one,” party communication department head Randeep Surjewala quoted her as saying.

Interestingly, those who wrote the letter and those who opposed them delineated similar political premises for their positions. The letter cited the reign of BJP governments at the Centre and in many States and the communal and divisive agenda of the party. It also noted the situation created by the COVID pandemic and the consequent economic hardships inflicted on the people in the form growing unemployment and the agrarian crisis. It demanded a through political and organisational restructuring of the Congress to tackle the situation. Those who opposed it were of the view that demands for an overhaul at this juncture were against the interests of the Congress and the nation, as what was required at this point was to rally behind the “Gandhi-Nehru family who are at the forefront of opposing the BJP regime”.

There were reports as the CWC meeting was going on that Rahul Gandhi himself had pointed to the inopportune timing of the letter, not only for political reasons but also personal because Sonia Gandhi was not in the best of health. Suggestions based on his remarks went even to the extent of possible collusion of the letter writers with the BJP. This was countered fiercely on Twitter by Kapil Sibal, who asserted that he had played an important role at the level of the judiciary in saving the Congress government in Rajasthan during its recent internal crisis and dissension. He also added that he was playing an important role in Manipur to save the Congress from poaching by the BJP. Following this outburst, Rahul Gandhi apparently telephoned Sibal to clarify that he had not suggested collusion. Later, Sibal too withdrew his tweet. Azad too pitched in saying Rahul Gandhi had never made a suggestion about collusion of the 23 leaders with the BJP.

A resolution issued after the meeting said: “The CWC authorises the Congress president to effect necessary organisational changes that she may deem appropriate to take on the challenges listed above.” The CWC unanimously requested Sonia to continue to lead the party “until such time as circumstances will permit an AICC session to be convened,” it said. Venugopal said the AICC session would be held at the earliest but did not give any time frame. A senior Congress leader from Kerala said that though it had not been officially stated, the party leadership had decided to set up a committee to assist Sonia Gandhi to look into “all issues”, including those raised by the 23 leaders.

At the end of it all, as is the wont in the grand old party, the signatories to the letter have also expressed satisfaction on the proceedings of the CWC though the contents of the letter were not addressed in detail at the meeting. Many among the 23 leaders expressed the hope that things would move more creatively and concretely in the days to come. However, the whispering campaign against these leaders continues within segments of the party. According to a Punjab based leader, a number of the so-called dissidents have many vested interests in coming out in the manner they have. “Some of them have cases, including that of serious charges of corruption, which are being pursued by the BJP governments at the Centre and in the States. Some others are unhappy because they have not got the positions they aspired for. So, it is personal interests that triggers their action.”

Such campaigns have been part of Congress culture and sometimes they have had explosive consequences. It remains to be seen how the state of play develops in the days to come. However, outspoken and rebellious leaders like Mani Shankar Aiyar and Sanjay Jha, who have faced disciplinary action several times in the past, have stated on record that the current situation and the messages that have emanated from it gives them hope that there would be genuine attempts at course correction and restructuring. Coming as it does from the plain speaking Aiyar and Jha, this observation should give some hope to ardent supporters of the grand old party.