With her resignation, she will try and turn the tables on ‘The 23’, which includes CWC members, MPs, former ministers, chief ministers and ex-party chiefs. Already, Punjab and Chhattisgarh chief ministers Amarinder Singh and Bhupesh Baghel have come out in Gandhi’s support.
It is possible that the CWC may ask Gandhi to continue till a new president can replace her. Or it may authorise her to name someone in her place, in the interim, till elections to the post can be held. This may enable her to appoint a family loyalist as party chief, and buy time in the light of the unprecedented and open attack mounted against the Gandhi family from within the party, something that has not happened for a long time. It is also possible that the CWC suggests working presidents or vice presidents to assist her while she continues to lead the party for a little longer.
There are many more behind ‘The 23’. Around 250 people were contacted, according to some of the signatories. But it was decided to stick to a smaller cohesive number at this stage. It was the signature of senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad that lent the exercise gravitas. That a Gandhi family loyalist like Azad should append his signature to the letter shows the level of frustration that exists today about the ‘drift’ in the party. This, an organisation where Congress members do not rock the boat.
The letter, however, has less to do with Sonia Gandhi and more to do with Rahul Gandhi. The explicit message is about the need to change the party’s functioning by having a full-time president, by holding free and fair elections to the CWC, Pradesh Congress Committees (PCCs) and other bodies from top to bottom.
But the more important implicit message is against Rahul Gandhi. The letter is a pre-emptive strike to prevent him from becoming party chief again, or conduct his style of backseat driving. Of late, Rahul’s supporters have made noises demanding he takes over the party reins again. So far, he has resisted. Having resigned following Congress’s rout in May 2019, he had made it clear that he would not reconsider his decision unless he was given a free hand to run the party — and have his own ‘Kamaraj plan’ of getting rid of the old guard, and bringing in his own team.
But with Sonia Gandhi unwell, he has reportedly been making most decisions — be it Rajya Sabha nominations or PCC presidentships. Amarinder Singh may ask for Manish Tewari as PCC chief in Punjab, but it is Rahul’s writ that runs. His inaccessibility to party leaders and workers does not help. In the words of one of the signatories to the letter, ‘it had become unfettered power without accountability’.
Many Congress leaders have been worried about several of Rahul Gandhi’s tweets going out as Congress policy without any consultation in a party forum — the line the party should take on China, for instance, that took no cognisance of foreign policy heavyweights in the party such as Anand Sharma and Shashi Tharoor.
The choice of words in the letter is significant. It seeks a ‘full-time,’ ‘visible,’ ‘active,’ and ‘effective’ party president. Sonia Gandhi, because of her health, has been a reluctant incumbent who stepped in only as an ‘interim’ arrangement. Rahul Gandhi is neither ‘visible’ nor ‘effective’. Though proactive on Twitter — attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the economic downslide, Covid-19 mismanagement, Chinese incursions — he has failed to click at the popular level. There is finally a growing feeling in the party that the ‘Modi vs Rahul’ juxtaposition only helps BJP again and again.
These are early hours for a post-script to this story. But is the Congress now moving from a ‘Rahul phase’ in the party to one where Priyanka Gandhi Vadra may play a larger role, not in the interim, but in the future? Nowhere does the letter talk about the need for Congress to move towards a non-Gandhi family leadership.