Amid rumblings in Congress, dissenters stress on need for hands-on chief

When seven of the 23 senior Congress politicians who called for a sweeping organisational overhaul in August met party president Sonia Gandhi on Saturday, they offered several suggestions to revive the 135-year-old political party. Key among the suggestions was the role of the president who, they said, should be hands-on and lead from the front.

Termed an icebreaker, this was the first in-person interaction amid the Covid-19 pandemic between representatives of the group of dissenters and Sonia Gandhi and other party leaders. Hindustan Times spoke to several of the 20-odd attendees on the kind of changes the group wanted in the party.

Individual members of the group who spoke by turn put forward their views as did and some other attendees such as former finance minister P Chidambaram. Many of the changes suggested in the All India Congress Committee (AICC) were put forward by Chidambaram, who didn’t reply to queries from HT. “There should be people who sit in the office daily and be available for meetings and not the kind of ghost town that it (Congress headquarters) is now,’’ one of the group of seven dissenters who attended the meeting said on condition of anonymity. “We wanted a President to work within a revived intra-party institution.’’

Uncertainty over leadership has weakened the Congress and demoralised its workers, the controversial letter written by 23 leaders to Sonia Gandhi on August 7 said, warning the high command of the erosion of its support base with the desertion of functionaries across states, and calling for an overhaul of the party organisation and a “visible” leadership.

The letter also sought introspection of the reasons behind the party’s “steady decline,” and appealed to the Congress leadership to take the initiative for the formation of a “national coalition of democratic and secular forces” against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Of the 23 signatories to the letter, leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, his deputy in the House Anand Sharma, former union ministers Manish Tewari and Shashi Tharoor, former chief ministers of Haryana and Maharashtra Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Prithviraj Chavan and the head of the party’s legal department Vivek Tankha attended the meeting.

The institutions that the letter writers referred to at Saturday’s party meeting were both existing ones and some new ones they want created. For instance, they suggested the appointment of one, two or even more working presidents who would help the party president function more effectively.

This proposal has done the rounds for years now especially around the time Rahul Gandhi was to take over as party president, which he did in December 2017, only to give up the post in May 2019 after the Congress’s debacle in the general elections, paving the ground for Sonia Gandhi to become interim party chief. The concept of a working president has been revived with greater vigour since then.

The only precedent of a working president in the Congress dates back to the Rajiv Gadhi era. Because he was Prime Minister and also the Congress president, he chose veteran Kamalapati Tripathi as working president and Arjun Singh became party vice-president.

“The idea is to have a more consultative management of the party,’’ said another key leader. To this end, the letter writers also suggested that the Pradesh Congress Committee chiefs be empowered to do more. They pointed out that at the moment, PCC chiefs were reporting to general secretaries who were “de facto kings.’

The letter writers, especially Ghulam Nabi Azad, leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, also proposed restarting the Parliamentary board of the Party. This is a body that still finds mention in Article 25 , clause A of the party’s constitution. The clause says the body will be headed by the party president and will have nine other members, one of whom will be the leader of the party in Parliament.

“People confuse the function of the board. The constitution says that its purpose is to regulate and coordinate the parliamentary activities of Congress’ legislatures,’’ said the second leader cited above. The August letter writers suggested that the Parliamentary board meet regularly so that it can take a coordinated view of current issues.

When this was suggested, however, Sonia Gandhi pointed out that the body had been scrapped by PV Narasimha Rao when he was party president in 1992.

Party insiders said Rao’s was a nuanced move.”`During the plenary session at Tirupati (in 1992), Arjun Singh, Jitendra Prasad and others formed a syndicate and won elections to the Congress Working Committee (CWC). Since they would now have a say over the members of the Parliamentary board, Rao said that there wasn’t a point in having a board . A day later, they were made to issue a resolution that empowered the Congress president (Rao) to reconstitute all bodies,” one old-time Congressman said.

Finally, a suggestion was made to hold elections to choose members of the CWC, the highest decision making body of the party. The last time elections took place to the CWC were under Sitaram Kesri in 1997. In the last plenary session of the Congress, Ghulam Nabi Azad moved a resolution that junked elections to the CWC in favour of members’ nomination by the Congress president. The CWC’s term expires in 2022 and the letter writers want the a switch-back to the system of elections by then.

One of the changes suggested at Saturday’s meeting was immediately accepted. Former minister Manish Tiwari proposed “chintan shivirs”, or introspection meetings; its acceptance was announced by the Congress’s Pawan Bansal.

Tiwari didn’t respond to queries from HT.

Now the letter writers are waiting for the party to move on their other suggestions. They include one for the party to articulate a clear ideological view. For instance, HIndustan Times learns, Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor said he didn’t agree with the soft Hindutva approach being espoused by some party members in the north.

Some of the August letter writers are optimistic that the leadership will accept their proposals for reform, but others are sceptical. “They are just going through the motions. Why else would they have a press conference a day before to announce 99% want Rahul Gandhi to return,’’ said one of signatories, requesting anonymity.

Another signatory said he and other signatories didn’t have any problem with Rahul Gandhi becoming the Congress president through an election process. He warned that he and the others would resist any move to “impose a proxy” on the party.

There are others among the dissenters who feel that the Gandhis did make an attempt at rapprochement .

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