The Congress party may, yet, not be ready to win elections but after Monday’s meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), there’s one thing that’s become amply clear. If the party’s 50 most prominent faces were to enter a competition where participants were tasked to talk non-stop for seven hours without addressing a litany of issues directly linked to their collective well-being, the Congress would win against the most formidable set of garrulous rivals.
Coming as it did in the backdrop of an unprecedented indictment by 23 top Congress leaders of the rot that has crept into the party under the interim presidency of Sonia Gandhi, Monday’s CWC meeting was expected to be a fiery one. On that front, the deliberations certainly did not disappoint. From former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, whose unease with a section of party heavyweights is no secret, to the mild-mannered former prime minister Manmohan Singh and former defence minister AK Antony, over 40 of the 51-member CWC hit were unsparing in their criticism of their 23 colleagues who had, earlier this month, demanded a “visible and effective full time leadership” of the Congress along with a slew of organisational challenges.
Yet, as one CWC member after another launched a verbal assault on the 23-member “pro-reform” lobby, none of them bothered to actually address the issues for which the meeting of the party’s highest decision-making body had been convened. The marathon discussion was reduced, once again, to a competition among peers for displaying who among them could defend Nehru-Gandhi family’s claim on the Congress presidency most vociferously.
The meeting began with interim party chief Sonia Gandhi informing the virtual gathering, through a brief opening statement, of her decision to resign from office and urging the CWC to begin the process of finding her successor. She then asked organisational general secretary KC Venugopal to read out a statement she had sent him on August 20 as her response to the letter by the 23 leaders, including Congress loyalists and CWC members Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Mukul Wasnik, five former chief ministers and several former Union ministers. The letter was a reiteration of her desire to quit the party’s top office and for her successor to be appointed at the earliest. After seven hours, when the meeting ended, Sonia made her closing remarks. She recognised the concerns red-flagged by the pro-reform group, said she was hurt about the tenor of the letter and the manner in which it was leaked to the press ahead of the CWC meet but also asserted that she harboured no ill-will against the signatories and wanted to ‘forget and move on’ for the party to fight united against the BJP. The CWC, including signatories to the letter – Azad, Sharma, Wasnik and Jitin Prasad, unanimously adopted a resolution endorsing Sonia’s continuation as party president “until such a time as circumstances will permit an AICC session to be convened”.
The CWC resolution authorized the Congress president to make “necessary organisational changes”. The Congress, officially, hopes to project this line as the party’s acknowledgment of and reply to the demand for an overhaul. Curiously though, the CWC had no discussion on why this hadn’t been done since August 10 last year when Sonia took over as interim chief, particularly since the CWC resolution that had appointed her to the post had made the same pledge back then too.
Congress sources confirmed to Outlook that none of the issues raised in the letter with regard to the corrective steps that the party needs to take for its revival were discussed at the CWC. Instead, the signatories to the letter were pushed to a side; ridiculed by their colleagues for questioning the leadership of Sonia who had “sacrificed so much for the party and contributed immensely to its strengthening” ever since she took the political plunge over two decades ago. Manmohan Singh felt the authors of the letter had created an “unfortunate” crisis for the party; Antony believed they had been “cruel” to the first family; party veteran Ambika Soni slammed them for being “irresponsible” and wondered why disciplinary action shouldn’t be taken against them; Ahmed Patel called the episode “shameful” and singled out Anand Sharma for criticism, alluding that it was he who had drafted the letter. And, so went on the diatribe against those who advocated change.
Having slammed the 'mutineers' during their audience with Sonia and Rahul, several of the status-quoists also told Outlook after the CWC that the commitment of a majority of the 23 signatories to the Congress "cannot be questioned".
It was, however, Rahul who was most acerbic in his interventions, making it clear that it was the party veterans who had forced Sonia to step in as interim chief. He slammed the signatories over the timing of the letter, questioning why they had written it at a time when the party was battling a crisis in Rajasthan while Sonia too was admitted to a Delhi hospital for her recurring health problems; and he hit out for the gravest misdemeanor of all: why was the letter leaked to the press which is known for “pushing the BJP’s agenda”. This last part of Rahul’s broadside got twisted by the time it got reported by the same press he was ridiculing. Rahul accused the signatories of being in “cahoots with the BJP”, is what a large section of the media reported. The news irked Kapil Sibal, another pro-reform leader, so much that he immediately took to Twitter to vent his ire without even checking the veracity of the report from those actually present at the CWC meet. Sibal later withdrew the tweet after Rahul personally informed him, in the midst of the meet, that he hadn’t said anything of the sort. Reports that Ghulam Nabi Azad offered to resign from the party if allegations of him working in tandem with the BJP were proved true were also clarified after he said he wasn’t responding to Rahul but to comments made by some other party leaders (former Union minister and Haryana Congress chief Kumari Selja, who isn’t a CWC member).
Azad gave a pointed rebuttal to the accusations leveled against him by those who advocated status quo in the CWC meet but made it a point to reaffirm his faith in Sonia’s leadership. Similar assertions were made by Sharma too. Yet, even the signatories of the letter who were in the CWC meet did not ask their colleagues to address the issues raised in the letter that had caused the furore.
The net result of the ‘7-hour-talkathon’ was that the party remained where it was. There were no definite answers on when the full-time president will be elected – only a tentative time frame of ‘within six months’ is what party sources confirmed to Outlook. Though the CWC seemed to have agreed on the need for a committee to be constituted to “assist” the Congress president in running the day–to-day affairs of the party, there was no mention of this in the resolution. It was also unclear whether the demand by the pro-reformers to revive the Congress Parliamentary Board to enable “collective leadership” of the party had been accepted. There was also no discussion on the demand for sweeping changes to decentralise power and re-energise the party’s state units, nor was there any discussion on a roadmap for electoral recovery, ideological clarity or the way to prepare the party to counter the BJP. Ironically, even those who criticised the 'pro-reform' group at the CWC haven't denied that each of these concerns is genuine and needs to be addressed.
In the end, the Congress’s first family succeeded in re-enforcing their indispensability to the party and its vice-like grip over it. By keeping a studied silence on the calls for returning as Congress president, as opposed to his vehement dismissal of such demands over the past year, Rahul has also kept up the mystery over whether or not he may step into Sonia’s shoes when the AICC session is finally convened to elect a full-term president. But, the ‘unprecedented’ push back from the new Syndicate that was touted as a harbinger of reform in the Congress has, at least for now, fizzled out. It remains to be seen what the 23 advocates of reform will do next – or more importantly, what the party will do with them now, given that their ‘misgivings’ about the party and its leadership stand exposed.