Rahul and Sonia in Raipur
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi greets his supporters on reaching Raipur for the party's Plenary Session. Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi is also seen with him.

Congress plenary: Gandhis stay out of decision to let Kharge nominate CWC members

For first time in over two decades, no Gandhi present during a Congress steering committee meeting

Putting to rest all speculations over the possibility of internal elections for membership of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), party’s communication department chief Jairam Ramesh has said that Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge has been “unanimously” authorised to nominate all members to the party’s highest decision-making body.

The decision was taken at a meeting of the Congress Steering Committee (a temporary panel that replaces the CWC upon election of a new party chief), on the first day of the All India Congress Committee’s 85th Plenary Session in Raipur on Friday (February 24). Ramesh said that arguments, both in favour and against conducting the elections, were presented by the 45-odd members of the steering committee who were present at the over two-hour-long meeting.

Gandhis skip discussion

Former Congress presidents Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi as well as party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had skipped the discussion – a first in over two decades when no member of the Gandhi family was present during a steering committee meeting. Sources said the decision of the Gandhis to not attend the meeting was meant to unambiguously indicate to their colleagues that party chief Kharge enjoys their full confidence and also that they did not wish to influence the meeting’s outcome in any way.

Also read: 85th Congress Plenary Session starts today in Raipur: What to expect?

“Some points on the meeting’s agenda were directly linked to the future role that we want the Gandhis, particularly Sonia and Rahul, to play in the party… there are amendments being mooted to the Congress constitution to essentially ensure that Sonia and Rahul get life-time membership of the CWC and, thus, remain part of crucial decision-making exercises in the party irrespective of whoever becomes the Congress chief in the foreseeable future. Given the agenda, the Gandhis felt that it would not be proper for them to attend the meeting,” a steering committee member told The Federal.

She likened the absence of the Gandhis to a similar decision they had taken in August 2019 when Rahul Gandhi’s decision to step down as party president and his insistence to appoint a non-Gandhi chief had plunged the Congress in crisis.

“At the CWC meeting held to decide Rahul’s successor, the general view was that the party’s presidency must remain with a Gandhi. When the CWC met, Sonia and Rahul made brief remarks and then left the meeting after telling the CWC members that they must freely discuss all options and that the Gandhi family will accept whatever is unanimously decided by the CWC. Ultimately, the CWC had decided to bring Sonia back in the role of interim party chief,” the steering committee member recalled.

Sonia, Rahul to address session

The Gandhis are expected to attend the plenary discussions scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. Kharge and Sonia are due to address the session on Saturday (February 25) while Rahul will address the 15,000 odd delegates attending the meet on Sunday (February 26) morning.

At the steering committee meeting on Friday, Kharge, who was elected as the Congress president last October, urged his colleagues to speak freely on the issue of the CWC elections and asserted that “whatever you decide will also ultimately be my view and that of the party”.

Senior leaders backed CWC polls

Sources said, senior party leaders such as Digvijaya Singh, P Chidambaram, Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Ajay Maken batted for CWC elections “in the interest of inner party democracy”. Chidambaram, who had earlier publicly supported the idea of filling up 50 per cent of the CWC seats through elections, and Maken are learnt to have told the steering committee that if the Congress can have elections for its highest post – that of the party president – then why should elections for the CWC be a no-go area.

However, a majority of the steering committee members argued against CWC elections on grounds that such an exercise could prove counter-productive at a time when the party is bracing for half a dozen assembly polls over the next 10 months and the Lok Sabha polls due next year.

Also read: Half of CWC must be elected, says Chidambaram; bats for young members

‘Polls may skew CWC composition’

Votaries of following the nomination process for filling up the CWC argued that an election would skew the CWC’s composition as leaders from smaller states with fewer delegates qualified to vote in the poll will be at a disadvantage against those from bigger states and also that the final outcome of the poll may not give equitable representation to members of the Dalit, Adivasi, backward class communities or to women.

Some also claimed that the election will increase factional feuds in the party already infamous for its internal turmoil. According to sources, Singh said that if the reservation against conducting the polls was that it would create inner party friction ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, then the CWC election can be deferred to be held until after the 2024 General Election just as the election for the Congress president was deferred multiple times between 2020 and 2022.

A senior steering committee member told The Federal that though the Gandhis had skipped Friday’s meeting, they too had communicated to some party leaders that while they are “open to the idea of CWC elections, they want the steering committee to ensure that such an eventuality doesn’t disturb the CWC’s plurality”.

Also read | A Gandhi at last: Rahul’s poll rally perks up Meghalaya Congress

Those lobbying for CWC polls tried to counter these arguments by asserting that the Congress Constitution, as it stands today, gives powers to the Congress president to nominate some members to the CWC, either as regular members or in the categories of special and permanent invitees. The pro-election camp said that the question of balancing regional, caste, gender, or community representation can be addressed adequately through this nomination process while elections can be held for the remaining seats.

Amendments turn the tide

What seems to have finally turned the tide in favour of a “unanimous” decision to authorise Kharge for nominating all CWC members is the slew of amendments that have been mooted to the Congress Constitution and are expected to be endorsed during the Plenary Session.

Also read: Will you contest CWC polls? Tharoor has a cryptic answer

Ramesh said that proposals to amend as many as 16 sections of the Congress Constitution have been drafted by the constitution amendment sub-group constituted by Kharge under party veteran Ambika Sonia. Another 32 rules for implementation of various sections of the Congress Constitution are also proposed to be amended.

The “most important amendment” that the Soni-led panel has suggested, said Ramesh, is one that would ensure a fixed quota for Dalits, Adivasis, Other Backward Classes and Women in the CWC and other party positions. The CWC poll could have been conducted keeping this amendment – mooted in line with the resolution passed by the Congress at its Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir held in Rajasthan’s Udaipur last May – in mind by reserving the requite number of seats up for elections for the various categories. However, sources said the polling exercise as a whole would have become more complicated to pull off as another amendment that is expected to be passed involves ensuring that 50 per cent of seats across party posts are reserved for leaders aged below 50 years of age.

As such, the steering committee ultimately decided against conducting the CWC polls. “There was a general consensus against conducting polls for the CWC but the decision to not have the elections was taken unanimously,” said Ramesh, conceding that several leaders had indeed pushed for an internal election but the party chose to adopt the nomination route keeping in mind the “current political challenges facing the country and the party…and the amendments proposed to the Congress constitution”.

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