New Delhi: Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi Saturday met over a dozen party leaders, four months after 23 leaders wrote to her demanding a full-time and active leadership.
The meeting, which lasted nearly five hours, saw the presence of some of these 23 leaders, including Anand Sharma, Manish Tewari, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Shashi Tharoor, Prithviraj Chavan and Bhupinder Hooda.
Former party president Rahul Gandhi as well as Priyanka Gandhi Vadra were also present, and sources said all leaders took their turn to speak at length.
“The question of lack of organisational rigour, and gap between top leadership and rest of the party was addressed. The consensus was that there should be more frequent meetings, including that of the Congress Working Committee (CWC),” an attendee, who was one of the signatories to the letter, told ThePrint.
“The subject of elections for the post of party president was broached, but only briefly. Since the central election authority has already been charged with the task to hold elections, we didn’t find it wise to discuss the subject for too long,” the leader added.
Sources told ThePrint Rahul Gandhi said that he is open to receiving feedback from senior leaders in the party, indicating an outreach to them.
“He said he is willing to take feedback, and respects the seniors in the party. Also because many of the seniors were his father, former PM Rajiv Gandhi’s colleagues,” a source said.
Sources also said that Priyanka in the meeting asserted the need to empower grassroot workers, and appreciate the work they put in.
P. Chidambaram, who was also present at the meeting, spoke for the need to not have a top-down approach, but focus on working to strengthen booth-level politics, sources said.
On the eve of the meeting, chief Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala held a press conference, where he said that “99.9 per cent of Congress leaders and workers believe Rahul Gandhi should be elected president.”
The Saturday meeting, held at 10, Janpath, was Sonia’s first in-person meeting in a long time as she had been mostly conducting virtual meetings since the last several months.
Willing to work to rebuild organisation, says Rahul
Congress sources said that while Rahul did not categorically say he would be willing to become the party president again, he did say he was ready to take on any responsibility the party wants him to.
“He said the issue isn’t whether he becomes president or someone else does, the issue is that the organisation needs rebuilding. And he is willing to put in the effort to do that. He said whatever responsibility the party wants him to take to achieve that, he is willing to do it,” said another letter signatory, on condition of anonymity.
The leader also said that the meeting was “much more cordial” than the CWC meeting that took place in August to discuss the letter.
The CWC meeting had exposed the cracks in the party — with a clash emerging between the signatories to the letter, and those who backed the current leadership.
Besides the “dissenting” leaders, Ambika Soni, A.K. Antony and Harish Rawat were also present.
Sources said there seemed to be a “conscious effort” to ensure this meeting doesn’t become a repeat of the CWC meeting.
“The fact that this meeting was called, albeit after four months, meant that there is some effort being made by the leadership. That was appreciated and welcomed by all,” a second source said.
Call for unity, Chintav Shivirs
Sources further said that Sonia Gandhi called for unity in the party.
“She repeatedly said the party is like one big family, and extended a call for unity in these times. She said all of us need to work to strengthen the party,” the second source said.
Prithiviraj Chavan, former Maharashtra CM, who was also one of the signatories to the letter, told the media after the meeting that “Chintan Shivirs” like those held in the past in Shimla and Panchmarhi would be organised.
The party had organised the Pachmarhi Shivir in September 1998 soon after Sonia Gandhi became the party president and the Shimla Shivir was organised in July 2003.
Pawan Kumar Bansal, former union minister who has recently been made the interim treasurer of the party after Ahmed Patel’s death, was also present at the meeting. Bansal told the media that all members are working together and dismissed allegations of fissures in the party.
“It was a free-wheeling discussion, everyone participated in it. Whatever one wanted to say, they took full time to say it… No one was critical of Rahul Gandhi, everyone supported him,” Bansal said.
Media made a big deal of the letter, says Gehlot
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who was also present at the meeting, told the media “things aren’t what they seem in politics”.
“The media made a big deal out of the letter. When everyone considers Rahul ji and Sonia ji their leaders, then why would there be any fight?” Gehlot said.
“The meeting was very congenial, everyone’s perspective was heard. Everyone felt that Rahul Gandhi should take the charge of the leadership,” he added.
Former Madhya Pradesh CM Kamal Nath was also present at the meeting. Nath had played an instrumental role in arranging this meeting, after he met some of the “dissenting” leaders last week as well as Sonia, separately.