Sonia Gandhi will continue to remain the interim Congress president for ‘a few more months’, the Congress Working Committee said on Monday after a day of high drama.
The Congress will elect a new party chief within the next 6 months.
Speaking on the occasion, Sonia Gandhi said that she was hurt by the letter but ‘they are my colleagues and let bygones be bygones and let us work together’. She said she held no ‘no ill-will’ towards anyone in the party, a remark intended at the dissent-letter writers.
The Congress Working Committee closed ranks behind Sonia Gandhi, urging her to stay on as party chief after she offered to step down as interim president following a letter by more than 20 leaders demanding an 'active, full-time and visible' president.
Though a large section of the leaders backed Sonia Gandhi at the nearly seven-hour virtual meeting of the Congress’ highest decision making body to discuss the pivotal leadership issue, the fault-lines were clear and appeared to deepen at some points as the day progressed.
"Don't expect any immediate decision today as elections and selection takes time. We have pleaded with her (Sonia Gandhi) to continue till the time we get new party president," Congress sources said. Sonia Gandhi will remain Congress interim chief for few more months, News18 said, quoting sources.
Earlier in the day, a massive fight broke out at the virtually held Congress Working Committee meeting on Monday with senior Congress leaders Kapil Sibal and Ghulam Nabi Azad hitting out at Rahul Gandhi after the latter allegedly accused leaders, who had written to Sonia Gandhi for organisational overhaul, of 'colluding with the BJP.
Both Kapil Sibal and Ghulam Nabi Azad, however, later retracted their statements criticising Rahul Gandhi, saying that the former Congress president had been misquoted by the media as he did not say that some senior leaders were in cahoots with the BJP.
That Rahul linked the letter written by leaders to their collusion with the BJP too has been strongly denied by the Congress party.
An irate Kapil Sibal had first tweeted that he has never made a statement in favour of the saffron party on any issue in the last 30 years.
Ghulam Nabi Azad too had dared the party to prove that he had conspired with the Bharatiya Janata Party and said he would resign if there is a feeling that the signatories of the letters had colluded with the BJP.
However, soon Sibal posted another tweet saying he was withdrawing his earlier tweet as Rahul Gandhi had told him personally that he had not said what was being attributed to him.
Just before Sibal withdrew his earlier tweet, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala asked him to not be ‘mislead by false media discourse or misinformation being spread’. He added that the party needs to work together in fighting the draconian Modi rule rather than fighting and hurting each other.
Soon thereafter, Ghulam Nabi Azad too emphasised that Rahul Gandhi never said it, neither in CWC or outside, that this letter (to Sonia Gandhi about party leadership) was written in collusion with BJP.
Dozens of leaders to quit Congress?
Media reports said that the open fight in the Congress could become worse in the days to come and may lead to dozens of leaders resigning from the party. Some reports suggested as many as four Congress leaders decided to log off the CWC video call.
Sibal is among the 23 party leaders who have written to Sonia Gandhi seeking a 'full-time' leadership that is active in the field and 'visible' in party offices, dissolution of powers to state units and revamping the Congress Working Committee in line with the party constitution, among other changes.
Senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal, in a tweet, said that in the last 30 years, he has never made a statement in favour of the BJP on any issue and yet he is being accused of colluding with BJP.
The letter being referred to was signed by, among others, Kapil Sibal, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Shashi Tharoor, Bhupinder Hooda and Milind Deora.
Rahul accuses leaders of colluding with the BJP
Intervening during the CWC deliberations, Rahul Gandhi blasted the signatories of the letter and openly accused them of colluding with the BJP, the Press Trust of India reported quoting sources as saying.
He questioned why the letter attacked the Congress ‘when it was at its weakest, when it was battling crises in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and when the Congress president (Sonia Gandhi) was unwell’.
Rahul said the right place to discuss what was written in the letter was the CWC meeting and not the media.
The debate over the ‘Gandhi leadership’ for Congress has taken centre stage in Indian politics once again as the party stands divided over a call for ‘revival’ by senior leaders, who wrote to Sonia Gandhi demanding changes in the party as “a national imperative.”
Rahul Gandhi said that those who wrote the letter at this time, when the party is facing crisis in states, are helping the BJP.
Meanwhile, Congress veteran leader Anand Sharma, who is one of the signatories of the letter, said Rahul Gandhi should take over as the president but key decisions must not just be taken behind closed doors and added that the party must be more transparent in decision making, reported News18.
Letter an attempt to stop Rahul from taking over?
Media reports suggest that the letter was aimed at thwarting the attempts to bring back Rahul Gandhi as the Congress president.
However, Rahul Gandhi has so far refused to return as Congress chief, while his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra too has hinted that she will remain as a general secretary and not take on any bigger leadership role in the party.
This is the first time since 1999, when Sharad Pawar walked out over Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin, that the Congress has seen a revolt brewing against the Nehru-Gandhi leadership.
Reports said that the signatories to the letter had tried to meet with Sonia Gandhi to defuse tension before the meeting, but were told that Rahul Gandhi would meet them.
Sonia offers to step down
Just before the fight within the Congress broke out interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Monday offered to quit, asking the Congress Working Committee to initiate the process for selecting a new party chief, sources said.
In her opening remarks at the meeting, called in the wake of a section of leaders seeking a 'full time and visible' Congress president, Sonia Gandhi made the offer to quit saying she had given a detailed reply on the issue to AICC general secretary K C Venugopal.
Former prime minister Manmohan Singh, who spoke after Gandhi, urged her to continue, so did former Defence Minister A K Antony, with both the veterans criticising the letter by some party leaders, including Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Mukul Wasnik, who are a part of the CWC, the party's highest decision-making body.
Sources said Sonia Gandhi referred to Azad and others twice during her brief address and the issues raised by them.
She also handed over a detailed reply to Venugopal, who read out its contents at the CWC meeting in which Gandhi sought to be relieved from the post.
Sources added that Rahul Gandhi in his speech also questioned the timing of the letter, which was sent to Sonia Gandhi when she was in Gangaram hospital and under medication.
'It is the CWC and not the media where we put out our thoughts and discuss,' he is learnt to have said at the meeting, the sources said.
The crucial meeting of the Working Committee started here amid divisions in the party over the leadership issue.
The party is divided on the leadership matter with a section demanding collective leadership and another reposing faith in the Gandhi family.
Ambika Soni calls for action over leaked letter
Congress leader Ambika Soni in the CWC said, "as per party constitution, action can be taken against those who wrote to Sonia Gandhi on party leadership. GN Azad, Anand Sharma said they were within limits in raising concerns, still, if someone feels it's breach of discipline action can be taken."
Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Asaduddin Owaisi take pot-shots at the Congress
“When Scindia ji raised his voice, he was accused of colluding with BJP. Now when leaders like Gulam Nabi Azad and Kapil Sibal are demanding full-time party chief, they're also being accused of colluding with BJP. No one can save such a party,” Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan said as the battle within the Congress spilled out into the open.
“Poetic Justice: GHULAM NABI sb u'd accused me of exactly this. Now you're accused of the same. 45 years of ghulami for this? Now it's proven that anyone opposing Janeudhari leadership will be branded B-Team I hope Muslims now know the high cost of loyalty to Congress,” Owaisi said responding to Rahul Gandhi’s purported ‘collusion with BJP remark.’
‘Only a Gandhi should lead Congress’
As the Congress' top decision-making body CWC met virtually to discuss the contentious leadership issue, several party workers gathered at the AICC headquarters here on Monday raising slogans, asserting that no one except from the Gandhi family would be acceptable as party chief.
The scenes at the party headquarters were indicative of the growing tumult in the Congress with the party deeply divided on the leadership issue.
Although the CWC meeting was taking place virtually, several Congress workers gathered outside the party's 24 Akbar Road office and raised slogans in support of the Gandhi family.
Many carried placards like 'Gandhi ke alawa adhyaksh manzoor nahi (nobody is acceptable as president except Gandhi)' and 'Gandhi pariwar ke alawa koi adhyaksh bana, toh party toot hi jayegi (if anybody outside the Gandhi family becomes chief, the party will break).
After 23 party leaders wrote to Sonia Gandhi seeking revamp of major bodies, sources close to her said she might offer to step down from the post of president in the CWC meeting and ask the party to look for a full-time chief. All India Congress Committee (AICC) media chief Randeep Surjewala had, however, denied it.
With inputs from PTI, The Quint and News18