Sonia stays in charge of Congress after acrimonious CWC meet | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Sonia stays in charge of Congress after acrimonious CWC meet

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | BySunetra Choudhury and Aurangzeb Naqshbandi
Aug 25, 2020 05:02 AM IST

The CWC — held in the backdrop of the first-ever show of dissent by prominent leaders against the party’s first family — authorised Sonia Gandhi to effect any necessary organisational changes, reaffirmed its faith in both Sonia and former president Rahul Gandhi.

The Congress Working Committee (CWC) on Monday resolved that Sonia Gandhi will continue as party president until an All India Congress Committee (AICC) session is convened, rejecting the concerns raised by 23 Congress leaders who criticised the functioning of the party and asked for structural changes in a controversial letter whose contents became public last week.

Rahul Gandhi led the attack on the signatories by saying it came when the Congress was fighting political battles in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and Sonia Gandhi was in hospital.(PTI)
Rahul Gandhi led the attack on the signatories by saying it came when the Congress was fighting political battles in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and Sonia Gandhi was in hospital.(PTI)

The CWC — held in the backdrop of the first-ever show of dissent by prominent leaders against the party’s first family — authorised Sonia Gandhi to effect any necessary organisational changes, reaffirmed its faith in both Sonia and former president Rahul Gandhi.

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There was sharp criticism of those who signed the letter at the party’s highest decision-making body, which met for seven hours on Monday and witnessed stormy exchanges between the leaders.The discussion focused largely on the timing of the letter, the intent behind it, and its leak; rather than on its contents.

Rahul Gandhi led the attack on the signatories by saying it came when the Congress was fighting political battles in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and Sonia Gandhi was in hospital. The CWC, in its formal resolution, also emphasised that issues must be raised within party forums in the interest of “propriety and discipline”, and not “through the media or in public fora”.

Only four of the 23 leaders who signed the letter are CWC members, which made them eligible to attend the meeting — Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Mukul Wasnik and Jitin Prasada. Attacked for criticising the leadership, the dissidents expressed their support for Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, claimed that the letter was not intended to question the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi family, and it had been “misconstrued”, but asserted that it had been written within the limits of a democratic party.

According to people familiar with the contents of the letter, sent on August 7, a set of leaders — which also included Kapil Sibal, Shashi Tharoor, Manish Tewari, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, and Milind Deora, among others — criticised the lack of honest introspection after electoral defeats, and asked for a full-time, effective, “active” and “visible” president; elections at all levels in the party (including the CWC); establishing an institutional leadership model to collectively guide the party; and a national coalition with like-minded parties, among other steps.

HT has not seen a copy of the letter.

Monday’s CWC resolution, which is the final word in the party for now, after enumerating the challenges facing the country, stated that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are “two voices that have been at the forefront of exposing the government’s inadequate responses, divisive politics and audacious propaganda” and that the two have “inspired a generation of Indians”; it pledged to “strengthen” their hands “in every possible way”; and asserted that “no one will be or can be permitted to undermine or weaken the party and its leadership at this juncture”.

According to several leaders present in the meeting who HT spoke to, the proceedings began with Sonia Gandhi reiterating her decision to step down, as she had noted in a letter to party general secretary (organisation) KC Venugopal last week. She took over as interim chief last August, after Rahul Gandhi resigned after the Congress defeat in the Lok Sabha elections. “In the interest of the party, I ask CWC to begin deliberations to put in place the process of transition to relieve me of my duties,’’ she wrote in the letter.

There was, however, overwhelming support for Sonia and Rahul Gandhi — among the 52 members who spoke, a majority either wanted Sonia to continue or Rahul to take over, or the former to continue till the latter took over.

According to one person at the meeting, Sonia Gandhi directly addressed Azad, the senior-most leader among the letter signatories, “You know me so well, Azad sahib. How could you think that I will take any decision on the leadership issue without consulting party leaders? You could always come and meet me. I retired long ago. I don’t want to hang on to this chair. So, what’s the motive of this letter?”

Rahul Gandhi, too, was critical of the timing of the letter, and referred to the fact that the party was engaged in political battles when it was written (in Rajasthan, it was dealing with an intraparty rebellion led by Sachin Pilot, while in Madhya Pradesh, it faces a set of crucial bypolls), and that Sonia Gandhi was then in the hospital.

According to a second person who participated in the meeting, referring to his mother, Sonia, Rahul said, “She didn’t want to be Congress president, and I didn’t want her to be because of her health, and yet you all insisted that she become [the president]. Why then do you have a problem with her? Challenging her authority and talking about the collective leadership was an insult to her.”

Rahul was incorrectly reported on Monday morning to have alleged that the letter-writers were in collusion with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), leading to Sibal putting out a tweet defending his commitment to the party. This, in turn, led to Gandhi calling and speaking to Sibal to clarify he had never made such a remark — which, then, saw Sibal withdraw his tweet.

Former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh said the letter was “unfortunate” and shouldn’t have been written, even as he supported Sonia Gandhi’s continued stint as president. Former defence minister AK Antony called the letter “cruel”. Ahmed Patel, among Sonia Gandhi’s closest aides, said that he was pained that three senior leaders — Azad, Wasnik and Sharma — who occupied positions in the party had signed the letter.

“There are times when a person is angry over certain decisions in the party but that does not mean one starts writing letters,” he said, according to a person familiar with the proceedings of the meeting. Party general secretary Ambika Soni demanded action against the signatories, and said rules should be the same for seniors and juniors.

But on behalf of the signatories, Azad said that the letter was not directed against Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, and was “misconstrued” by some people. Azad claimed that for the past month, there had been rumours that Rahul Gandhi did not want to return as president while Sonia Gandhi did not want to remain party chief, and that someone else may be appointed. It was in that context of a possible third person being appointed, Azad said, the letter had been written, to urge the Congress president to discuss and consult with them before appointing somebody to the post.

Mukul Wasnik said he owed a lot to Sonia Gandhi, while Anand Sharma — who was accused by Ahmed Patel of drafting the letter — said that the letter was written with the permissible limits of a democratic party. Prasada said the idea was to only flag organisational issues and the letter wasn’t directed at the Gandhis.

Towards the end of the meeting, however, Sonia Gandhi sought to heal the divisions. Quoting her, the party’s chief spokesperson, Randeep Singh Surjewala, said, “We are a large family, we have differences 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 forces that are failing this country.”

“Organisational issues are always addressed and process of constitution and reconstitution is a continuous one.”

While no one from the dissenting group wanted to comment officially, one MP told HT, “It’s the beginning of a process and not the end.”

The BJP said it had nothing to do with the Congress’s internal matter. “As a former Congress person, I can say that the mirror has cracked and it is all out in the public domain,” senior leader Tom Vadakkan said.

Mumbai-based political analyst Abhay Deshpande said the dissenting leaders had raised genuine concerns about the functioning of the organisation. “They are also worried not only about their future but that of the party as well. For the time being, the issue has been put under the carpet but I am sure it will resurface within next six months if the concerns raised by them are not addressed,” he said.

Author and commentator Rasheed Kidwai said, “It’s going to be a fascinating, protracted battle. The dissenters have many tricks up their sleeve so let’s see what happens.”

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