Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Saturday told a group of party colleagues that the process for organisational elections, one of the key demands of internal dissenters, had been set in motion, and brainstorming sessions on the lines of those in Pachmarhi and Shimla would be held to revive and strengthen the party, people familiar with the development said.
The comments were made during a five-hour “rapprochement” meeting held in the lawns of Sonia Gandhi’s residence at 10, Janpath in Delhi, where the dissenters insisted that having representative and elected bodies from the top to bottom alone would help in the party’s revival across the country.
The meeting took place following a late-night huddle between some of the dissenting leaders following comments by party general secretary Randeep Singh Surjewala who said on Friday that there were no issues pending after the party kicked off the process of organisational elections. The leaders in the camp briefly contemplated whether to attend Saturday’s meeting, as Surjewala’s remarks did not go down well with them. They eventually decided to attend the meeting.
Sonia Gandhi called Saturday’s meeting to discuss the way ahead and resolve the internal crisis triggered by a letter written by a group of 23 Congress leaders, also known as G-23, in August this year.
None of the dissenters referred to the letter, which had sought full-time and active leadership, internal elections for every level of organisation, and introspection behind the “steady decline” of the 135-year-old organisation while outlining an 11-point action plan.
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Both sides described Saturday’s interaction as “cordial, constructive and an ice-breaker” unlike the stormy August 24 meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) where the rebels came under severe attack from Gandhi family loyalists for writing the letter.
Of the 23 letter writers, leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, his deputy in the Upper House Anand Sharma, former Union ministers Manish Tewari and Shashi Tharoor, former chief ministers of Haryana and Maharashtra Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Prithviraj Chavan respectively, and party’s legal department chairperson Vivek Tankha attended the meeting. Former Union minister Kapil Sibal had left for travel out of the country on Saturday morning.
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, senior leaders AK Antony, Ambika Soni, P Chidambaram, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath, party office bearers Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Ajay Maken, Pawan Kumar Bansal, Harish Rawat and Bhakta Charan Das were also present.
Congress general secretary in-charge of organisation KC Venugopal and general secretary in-charge of Karnataka and communications department Randeep Singh Surjewala were deliberately kept away as the two were considered to be “irritants” in the reconciliation process, according to people familiar with the matter.
This was also the first such meeting held after the death of the party’s key troubleshooter and master strategist Ahmed Patel last month.
Sonia Gandhi, according to Congress leader Pawan Bansal, told the leaders that they are “one big family” and all of them should work together and strive to strengthen the party.
Bansal said Sonia Gandhi also informed the meeting the process for holding organisational polls, including to the party president’s post and the CWC has already been set in motion and the central election authority (CEA) is working on it.
The dissenters thanked Sonia Gandhi for calling the meeting, consensus building and “being democratic” in the true Congress tradition, said another functionary present in the meeting.
A dissenter later said there was recognition that concerns and issues raised by them were genuine and in the interests of the party and their move was not dissidence.
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When Tewari urged that the Congress should hold “Chintan Shivirs” or brainstorming sessions similar to the Pachmarhi conclave in 1998 and the Shimla congregation in 2003 when the party was in the opposition, Sonia Gandhi promptly agreed and accepted his suggestion and told the leaders that there would be more such meetings in future.
Tewari also talked about a blueprint for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and stressed on effective leadership, robust organisation, a counter narrative to that of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and ideological clarity.
Nath and Chidamabaram raised the issue of people leaving the Congress and the sense of drift in the party. Chidamabaram also talked about restoring the parliamentary board and stressed on strengthening block- and booth-level committees.
Chavan talked about elected Pradesh Congress Committees (PCCs) and an elected CWC, the party’s highest decision-making body.
Azad spoke about the need to rebuild the organisation from the grassroots level and emphasised on having functional booth and district committees besides asking general secretaries and in-charges to spend more time in their respective states.
The dissenters also stressed on the need to maintain the integrity and sincerity of the dialogue process.
At this point, Azad without taking Surjewala’s name asked if the claim made at a news conference on Friday that all issues were sorted was true, then why was the meeting held for five hours.
The meeting also discussed the ongoing farmers’ agitation, the Covid-19 situation, impact of the lockdown, the state of the economy, the collapse of institutions, the government’s move to skip the winter session of Parliament, the Congress party’s poor show in the assembly polls in Bihar and by-polls on 58 seats in 11 states apart from the setbacks in local bodies’ elections in Rajasthan, a state ruled by the party, Telangana, Goa, Kerala and Assam.