A false impression created by interim AICC treasurer Pawan Bansal that Rahul had agreed to return as the Congress president surprised those attending a 7-hour long meeting Congress President Sonia Gandhi held with the dissenters and senior party leaders on the lawns of her 10 Janpath residence here.
They said there was no discussion on the question of the next party president and a section of media falsely created an impression that Rahul had agreed to return as Congress chief based on Bansal's briefing. A senior leader present at the meeting said: “We don’t know where from this information came. Some leaders did try to raise this subject, asking Rahul to return as party president, but Rahul himself said this meeting was not for electing the party president. He said the agenda is to discuss ways of strengthening the party.”
Sources said Rahul also said it was not important what post he holds as the main purpose was to revive the party and work together with everybody to achieve that objective. Except a few leaders, nobody referred to the question of Rahul’s return or the leadership crisis. It was clarified at the meeting that the process to elect the new party president had been set in motion and there was nothing more to be done about that.
The positive gain of the meeting is that the Congress leadership succeeded in averting a crisis by stressing the importance of unity, striving to erase the perceived old-versus-young line that has generated distrust and unease in the party.
The consensus also emerged to hold a brain-storming session alike those held at Pachmarhi hill station in Madhya Pradesh and in Shimla. Sonia started the meeting with a conciliatory note that differences are natural in the Congress being a big family, but nobody should treat each other as enemies as the party can be strengthened only if all work together.
The decision was taken that Sonia Gandhi should hold similar meetings over the next one week with the party general secretaries and other senior leaders before getting the ball rolling for the party elections, with an AICC plenary session probably in February.
At the very start, Sonia Gandhi forcefully argued that difference of perception in a big family like the Congress must not be taken as antagonism and everybody should come together to strengthen the party at this critical juncture when the country was grappling with an unprecedented social and political challenge instead of treating each other as enemies. Rahul echoed that sentiment, rubbishing the perception that he was against senior leaders.
Bansal is understood to have been pulled up by Sonia for misquoting Rahul offering to play "whatever role" all give to him. Sources said when members raised the issue of the leadership uncertainty, Sonia said the election process has already in progress and she is looking forward to give the party reigns to a new leader in January.
They said Bansal was right to the extent that Rahul agreed that "better communication" was needed and the party needed to strengthen itself at the booth level.
Rahul made an emotional appeal to the seniors not to lend ears to rumours, explaining that he respects them not only because of their experience and contribution to the party, but also because they worked with his father Rajiv Gandhi.
This was received by the so called dissenters with gratitude as they too wondered why such an artificial line dividing the party into two groups had been drawn. “We are not rebels or dissenters. Writing a letter to the party president is not a crime,” said those from the group of 23 who had written a strong worded letter to Sonia Gandhi in August for revamping the party.
These leaders were not dissatisfied with the meeting though they concede that a lot has to be done at the organisational level to address the concerns raised by them. They all reiterated at the meeting that they had full faith in the leadership of Sonia and Rahul and the attempts to create rifts were condemnable. Nobody was critical of Rahul’s role in the recent months and everybody appreciated Sonia’s call for working with unity to strengthen the party, they said.
The so called dissenters stuck to their position about organisational infirmities and referred to the debacle in Bihar assembly election, recent bypolls in some states including Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
Suggestions were also given for election to party posts, from district-level office-bearers to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and constitution of parliamentary board. Priyanka Gandhi stressed the need for public outreach, arguing that revival was difficult unless the party leaders stepped out to work among the people.
The immediate outcome is the breaking of ice, dissolution of the ‘us-and-them’ binary that has troubled the party for the last few months.
Veterans like Kamal Nath and Ashok Gehlot have worked hard to bridge the communication gap and convince the seniors that there was no move to isolate them.