Sonia Gandhi continues as interim president amid leadership row

A letter — sent by 23 senior Congress leaders to Sonia Gandhi regarding revamping the party from the top to bottom and streamline its functioning — has sparked fresh leadership debate in India’s Grand Old Party, reports Mudit Mathur

Uneasy calm prevails in the Congress Party after a truce among top party leaders over difference of opinions surfaced in the handling national and international crisis with sensitivity and political acumen. After day-long deliberations, the Congress Working Committee on August 24 decided that Sonia Gandhi will continue as the party’s interim president for now. The party would elect her successor within the next six months. Sonia Gandhi took over as the interim president last year after Rahul Gandhi resigned in the wake of the party’s defeat in the Lok Sabha elections.

A letter sent by 23 senior Congress leaders to the acting party president Sonia Gandhi regarding revamping the organisation from the top to bottom to streamline its functioning has somehow not gone well in the eyes of party high command in its online meeting of working committee, a top policymaking body. These leaders demanded “full time and effective leadership” which is both “visible” and “active” in the field, elections to the CWC and the urgent establishment of an “institutional leadership mechanism” to “collectively” guide the party’s revival. They stressed the establishment of an “institutional leadership mechanism” in the face of the “gravest political, social and economic challenges since Independence”.

The meeting faced peculiar situation as Mrs. Gandhi asked CWC members to relieve her from the duties of the presidential post by initiating the process of transition electing a new president. No names other than the Gandhi family emerged in the meeting. She had given a detailed reply on the issue through her letter, which AICC general secretary KC Venugopal read out in the beginning.

Leader of the Congress party in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury declared an “unequivocal and complete faith” in Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, and said that the “Congress party is safe only in the hands of Soniaji and Rahulji.” Ahead of a crucial Congress Working Committee meeting, a letter to Congress party President Sonia Gandhi declaring “complete and staunch support” to the Gandhi family was circulated among Congress MLAs and MPs across the states, who followed the suit to pledge their unflinching support to Gandhi family through identically worded letters.

Former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh urged Sonia Gandhi to stay and complete full term where as AK Antony, terming the letter of dissenting Congress leaders as unfortunate and cruel, said if she is unwilling to continue then Rahul Gandhi should take over the reins of the party.

Senior leader from Gujarat, Ahmed Patel, criticised the dissenters. Referring to Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mukul Wasnik and Anand Sharma, he said they are occupying key posts in the party and should not have written such a letter. He also said that Rahul Gandhi should take over as Congress president immediately.

Rahul Gandhi questioned the timing of the leaders’ letter and said it came at a time when Sonia Gandhi was ill and the party was fighting BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh said he was “hurt” by the letter seeking changes in CWC. “The move by these Congress leaders to demand (an overhaul) of the party at this critical juncture would be detrimental to its interests, and the interests of the nation,” Singh added.

Rebellious leader Ghulam Nabi Azad praised Sonia Gandhi in key meeting over leadership crisis in Congress. He explained why he wrote the letter and offered to quit if he was in any manner doing this to help the BJP or doing it at its behest. But Priyanka Gandhi retaliated at Ghulam Nabi Azad, “What you are saying here is opposite of what you have written in the letter.”

UP Congress chief Ajay Kumar Lallu and CLP leaders Aradhna Misra and Dinesh Singh also issued statements supporting Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi and asserted no necessity to change in leadership. They said that Congress is giving befitting reply to BJP under the leadership of Sonia and Rahul. The leaders who wrote letter demanding structural changes do not reflect the true sentiment of the Congress workers. “Those who took all kind of benefits from the present leadership now posing challenge to them,” they opined.

Another senior leader Kapil Sibal, who is not a CWC member, initially reacted on a report of news agency and tweeted, “Rahul Gandhi says we are colluding with BJP.”

“Succeeded in Rajasthan High Court defending the Congress Party. Defending party in Manipur to bring down BJP Govt. Last 30 years have never made a statement in favour of BJP on any issue. Yet “we are colluding with the BJP!”

But subsequently after clarification on Rahul Gandhi’s remarks by Randeep Singh Surjewala who tagged Kapil Sibal’s tweet that the former Congress chief “did not say a word of this nature nor alluded to it,” KapilSibal withdrew his tweet.

Twenty-three senior leaders of the Congress, including five former chief ministers, many Congress Working Committee members, sitting MPs and several former union ministers sent a letter to the party chief, Sonia Gandhi, calling for sweeping changes, from top to bottom, acknowledging the rise of the BJP and admitting that the youth decisively voted for Narendra Modi.

The letter underlined that the erosion of the support base and losing the confidence of the youth are matters of serious concern. The letter pleaded for extensive reforms, decentralisation of power and empowerment of state units, elections to the Congress organisation at all levels, from the block to the CWC and the urgent constitution of a Central parliamentary board.

Highlighting the plight of common Congress workers, these leaders have pointed out that the “uncertainty” over the leadership and the “drift” in the party had demoralised workers and weakened the party. Importantly, they are learnt to have said that the CWC is not “effectively guiding” the party anymore in mobilising public opinion against the BJP government. The CWC meetings have lost their relevance as convened irregularly and in retaliation to some political developments, the meetings of Congress Parliamentary Party has reduced to the customary address of CPP chairperson Sonia Gandhi and obituary references.

The signatories to the letter include Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, party MPs and former Union Ministers Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal, Manish Tewari, Shashi Tharoor, Renuka Chaudhary, AICC office bearers; and CWC members including Mukul Wasnik and Jitin Prasada and former Chief Ministers and Union Ministers including Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Rajender Kaur Bhattal, M Veerappa Moily, Prithviraj Chavan, MP Vivek Tankha, PJ Kurian, Ajay Singh, and Milind Deora; former PCC chiefs Raj Babbar (UP), Arvinder Singh Lovely (Delhi) and Kaul Singh Thakur (Himachal); current Bihar campaign chief Akhilesh Prasad Singh, former Haryana Speaker Kuldeep Sharma; former Delhi Speaker Yoganand Shastri and former MP Sandeep Dixit.

Political analysts feel that the idea “institutional leadership mechanism to collectively guide the party’s revival” is loaded with possibility of overcoming the influence of Gandhi family. The suggestion of establishment of an “institutional leadership mechanism” in the face of the “gravest political, social and economic challenges since Independence” is designed to blossom the aspiration of ambitious leaders of various states.

The Congress party is witnessing its worst days in Uttar Pradesh as it lost traditional vote bank of Brahmins, Muslims, OBC and scheduled castes after emergence of BJP, SP and BSP. The last Congress chief minister was Narayan Datt Tiwari, who was from Brahmin community. While Brahmin voters were wooed by BJP whereas Mayawati and Mulayam drained its Dalit and OBC support base. Now with the feeling of alienation in BJP a larger section in Uttar Pradesh was feeling frustrated and looking for effective alternative yielding them power, respect and political influence. The growing power struggle in the congress could damage its chance of revival.