Congress rebels get upper hand over Rahul loyalists in Sonia meet

A five-hour meeting of senior party leaders called by Sonia at her New Delhi residence has somehow beckoned hope of a rapprochement between warring sections of the party

Rahul Gandhi had given up the party’s stewardship following the abject defeat of Congress in 2019 general elections | File Photo

After months of bitter infighting, interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi has finally been able to bring a truce of sorts to the party’s deeply divided, sullen and rather embattled ranks. Anguish and resentment in the party’s higher ranks have been setting in for quite some time amid her son Rahul Gandhi’s reluctance to take over the reins of the grand old party once again.

Earlier, Rahul had given up the party’s stewardship following the abject defeat of Congress in two consecutive general elections in 2014 and 2019.

A five-hour meeting of senior party leaders called by Sonia at her New Delhi residence to stem out fears about Congress turning rudderless and going adrift has somehow beckoned hope of a rapprochement between warring sections of the party.

Rahul too was present through the weekend’s meeting and took part in its deliberations. The long-awaited parleys included seven of the disgruntled party higher-ups. Together, they mulled over the critical issues dogging the party, including those arising out of Rahul Gandhi’s relinquishing of the party chief’s post, as per party sources. He did not indicate a possible return to the post during Saturday’s meeting held at the lawns of 10, Janpath, the sources said.

The Congress has already initiated the process of internal elections so that a new party president could be elected by early next year or so. The party leaders taking part in the crucial meeting were only acutely aware of this. Thus, the question of the next Congress chief though did lurk through the meeting and obliquely figured in the deliberations too, it wasn’t directly addressed to in terms of the likely choices, or contenders.

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Yet, in this backdrop, the main tussle has precisely been over ‘Team Rahul’ as opposed to the old party guards. This has often been attributed to the generational gap between Rahul and his team on the one hand and quite a few second-rung Congress leaders on the other. The latter were quite a bit consequential when Congress held power at the Centre under Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership.

This section felt as being pushed to the margins in the party’s scheme of things when Rahul’s appointees of relatively young age were given crucial party positions. The ensuing rivalry between thus carved out warring sections of the party took time to get precipitated and yet it finally came out into the open through a letter that 23 Congress leaders shot to Sonia and also leaked it to a newspaper in Delhi in August.

Ever since, the Congress has been tottering under the weight of what has generally been thought to be a virtual revolt by a staunch group of party men. Moreover, this couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time since the party’s main troubleshooter Ahmed Patel lost his life on November 25 after grappling with COVID-19 for about two months.

It is in this background that Sonia finally called the rebels for talks to her residence on December 19. Yet, just to arrange the meeting it took a lot of effort and time on the part of party veteran Kamal Nath. It was he who shuttled a lot between the rebels and the party high command to arrange and work out the modalities for Saturday’s meeting. Sources say Rahul’s sister Priyanka Gandhi also played a crucial role in breaking the ice.

Indications are that the rebels were assured of their grievances being taken care of before their meeting with Sonia and other senior party leaders was convened. AK Antony, Ambika Soni, Ashok Gehlot, Pawan Bansal, Harish Rawat and Ajay Makan were among those who participated in the talks to help Sonia through the deliberations.

On the other side, or from the rebels’ ranks, were Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Prithviraj Chavan, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Manish Tewari, Vivek Tankha, and Shashi Tharoor, who were among the signatories to the August 2020 letter to the party president. Besides them, P Chidambaram and Kamal Nath too took part in the unusually long meeting. The two were never part of the rebel group though Chidambaram had called for the need for deliberations between the two sides.

Significantly, Congress leaders like KC Venugopal, Rajiv Satav and Randeep Singh Surjewala, though thought to be close to Rahul Gandhi, were conspicuous by their absence through the talks.

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This gave an indication to a possible change in the party’s scheme of things in the near future. The rebels were allowed to express themselves, their grievances and views about how the party should be steered in future rather unreservedly.

This is quite unlike what was the case in the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting held virtually soon after the 23 rebels letter appeared in a Delhi newspaper on August 23.  The rebels were not only outnumbered by Rahul’s loyalists and staunch advocates in the CWC meeting but also had to face a virtual snub by the loyalists.

So the crux of the issue that has been dividing the party and which led to bitterness and rivalry through its ranks takes down to what the rebels have been dubbing as “arrogance, ineptitude and brusqueness” of Rahul’s “select band of loyalists” rather than Rahul himself or the ways he deals with his party colleagues.

This is how no questions were raised about the leadership of Rahul Gandhi in Saturday’s meeting. The rebels’ demand for electing a party president, as also CWC and AICC members to ensure internal democracy in the party was accepted once again in the sense that this was assured, or rather decided, in the earlier meeting of the CWC too. Sonia also agreed to the suggestion to hold brainstorming sessions of senior party leaders to chart out a new roadmap for the party.

Somehow, the weekend conclave of Congress leaders was held at a time when Rahul Gandhi’s relentless criticism of crony capitalism benefiting a few business houses at the cost of millions of people is being vindicated and echoed by the farmers’ agitation being held against the BJP government at Delhi’s borders. This has been showing Rahul’s grit and commitment to Congress ideology for the purpose of the party’s rank and file.

And perhaps, this was the reason that none of the participants in Saturday’s meeting questioned Rahul Gandhi’s potential to lead the party in future. What the party peers questioned was ‘Team Rahul’ and his ability to judge and select the right sort of people. More so since these have to be put at responsible party positions in what are thought to be rather rough times for the Congress.