New Delhi: Following a letter written to Sonia Gandhi by at least 23 party leaders regarding leadership issues within the Congress and the need for an overhaul to counter the ruling Bhartiya Panata Party at the Centre, the interim party president has reportedly decided to step down from the position.
According to reports, Gandhi has said that she no longer wants to continue as the interim president. “She has asked to communicate to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) members that she doesn’t want to continue and is stepping down,” The Print reported a source as saying.
The news comes just a day before the CWC meeting scheduled of Monday. The Hindu reported that Gandhi has asked her colleagues to find a new party chief.
Chief party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, however, has said that Gandhi has not spoken to anyone about any such decision.
The letter – whose signatories include senior leaders Kapil Sibal, Shashi Tharoor, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Prithviraj Chavan, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Veerappa Moily and Anand Sharma – calls for a “full time and effective leadership”, elections to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and the establishment of an “institutional leadership mechanism” in the face of the “gravest political, social and economic challenges since Independence”.
In response to the letter, other senior party leaders have come out in support of the Gandhi family, including Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, Puducherry chief minister V. Narayanasamy, Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel and former external affairs minister Salman Khurshid.
“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 said.
“What the Congress needs is a leadership that is acceptable not just to a few but to the entire party, through its rank and file, and the nation at large,” he said. “Sonia Gandhi should continue to helm the Congress as long as she wants,” he said, adding that Rahul Gandhi should thereafter take over.
“I have said very clearly that the Gandhis are leaders of the Congress. Nobody can deny this, even the opposition cannot deny this. I am quite happy having a leader, I don’t worry about whether or not we have a president, we have a leader (in Rahul Gandhi) and that is comforting for me,” Khurshid told PTI in an interview.
After the Congress was defeated in the last national elections, Rahul Gandhi had resigned from the position of president. It was only after much persuasion – and a hiatus of several months in which the party was effectively headless – that Sonia Gandhi accepted the post of interim chief. At the time, the one condition she had laid down was that the Congress look for another leader to take on the mantle as soon as possible.
According to an aide of a senior Congress leader, Sonia Gandhi is expected to resign ahead of the CWC meeting on Monday. However, if Congress leaders insist she continue in her position, she may give the CWC a deadline to find a permanent president.
She has reportedly already conveyed her decision to K.C. Venugopal, the party’s general secretary (organisation). Sonia Gandhi, the aide said, decided to resign as the letter dated August 7 became public a day ahead of the CWC meeting in which she had planned to address the concerns raised by the 23 senior leaders.
The last time Sonia Gandhi had resigned in a huff was in 1999, when Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar had revolted against her leadership in a CWC meeting. However, she continued in her position after most senior leaders thought it was best that the party be steered by her at that moment. Pawar, Sangma, and Anwar were subsequently expelled from the party. However, her decision to resign in the current circumstances may be firmer as it is well known that she has not been keeping good health and has spoken about her reluctance to continue as president multiple times in party forums.
Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi is reportedly reluctant to step up and take over the party president’s position. Priyanka Gandhi, currently one of the general secretaries of the party, too, has refused to take up any bigger role. This may mean that the party is headed for an election, as demanded by the 23 leaders in the letter to Sonia Gandhi. The last few intra-party elections in the Congress have been messy affairs, with rival camps attacking each other in the open.
The letter by 23 senior leaders has sparked a row within the party already, with most elected state-level leaders – especially Amarinder Singh and Baghel, and former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah – denouncing the idea of intra-party elections. They have come out in support of Sonia Gandhi and have said she should continue as the party president for as long as she wants.
Political observers interpreted the letter to Sonia Gandhi as a rebellion against the Gandhi family and its supporters within the party – a preemptive move to quell the possibility of Rahul Gandhi’s automatic promotion to the post of party president. In a clear signal that they may not be content working under the sole leadership of Gandhi family, the leaders floated the idea of “collective leadership”. They wrote, “The Gandhis will always continue to be a part of the collective leadership of the party.”
However, Rahul Gandhi’s own reluctance to lead the party indicates that the move may only result in splitting the party down the middle.
In a way, the letter by the 23 leaders is a continuation of the arguments between top leaders of the Congress in the CWC meeting last month. Rahul Gandhi’s supporters – mostly Young Turks of the party – had severely criticised the senior leaders for the massive decline of the party since 2014. Many of the senior leaders who had to face the wrath of the younger leaders are signatories to the letter to Sonia Gandhi.
Against this backdrop, it appears that by letting their letter go public, the senior leaders have attempted to set the agenda for Monday’s CWC meeting on their own terms. Or, given the Congress’s Machiavellian ways, the family itself may have engineered the leak in order to drum up support for itself ahead of the CWC meet.