New Delhi: Sonia Gandhi will remain Congress president for now, the party decided on Monday after a fiery seven-hour meeting that began with the 73-year-old announcing she wanted to be relieved of the job and the party should start looking for her replacement after an explosive letter written by 23 top leaders calling for “a full-time, visible leadership”. Sonia Gandhi reportedly said in her closing remarks that she held “no ill-will” towards anyone in the party, a remark intended at the dissent-letter writers. “I am hurt but they are my colleagues, bygones are bygones, let us work together,” she said, ending the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting on a note of conciliation.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh moved a resolution asking Sonia Gandhi to continue. The party also set a six-month time-frame for a session of the All India Congress Committee to launch the search for a new chief, as asked by Sonia Gandhi.
Several Congress leaders suggested in the meeting that if Sonia Gandhi did not want to continue, Rahul Gandhi should return to the post that he had quit last year over Congress’s national election defeat.
The CWC meeting was called to discuss an August 7 letter by 23 top leaders, including Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kapil Sibal, Shashi Tharoor and Anand Sharma, which called for sweeping reforms in the party to remove uncertainty over the leadership and arrest a drift that had demoralized workers. The letter also suggested that the Gandhis will always be part of a “collective leadership”.
Sonia Gandhi’s opening remarks asking the party to start looking for a new chief led to leader after leader praising her leadership and stressing that she or Rahul Gandhi should remain at the helm. Sources say not a single leader expressed any criticism of the Gandhi leadership as the meeting followed predictable lines.
Issues raised by the “dissent” letter came up only when one of the signatories, Ghulam Nabi Azad, read out a portion. As he faced criticism from several Congress leaders, he also offered to resign.
Rahul Gandhi, who was believed to be at his mother’s home during the meeting, hit out at the signatories to the letter and questioned such a move “when the Congress was at its weakest, when it was battling crises in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and when the Congress president (Sonia Gandhi) was unwell”.
But reports that Rahul Gandhi had also accused the letter-writers of colluding with the BJP led to an unprecedented backlash before the Congress issued an emphatic denial. Leaders like Kapil Sibal shot off a tweet hitting out at Rahul Gandhi, which is rare for the Congress. Kapil Sibal soon deleted the tweet and posted: “Was informed by Rahul Gandhi personally that he never said what was attributed to him. I therefore withdraw my tweet.”
Ghulam Nabi Azad said his offer to quit was not in response to anything Rahul Gandhi said but was in context with remarks by others who had been making allegations without reading the letter. “We have no issue at all with Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. What we have raised is an internal matter of the party,” said the Rajya Sabha member.
Congress leader Ambika Soni suggested disciplinary action against the letter writers. Sources say Mr Azad and other signatories to the letter who are in the CWC — Mukul Wasnik and Anand Sharma – said they were ready to face punishment “immediately” but would remain loyal to the party. An emotional Mr Azad reportedly talked about working with Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi in his party of decades.
Among the early speakers at the CWC was Manmohan Singh, who said Sonia Gandhi should continue at least till a full meeting of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), where the process of looking for a new president could be started. Former union minister P Chidambaram echoed the suggestion. With Sonia Gandhi reportedly firm on quitting, an AICC meeting to elect a new chief emerged as a popular suggestion.