New Delhi: Seeking to quell recent dissension in the party, Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Saturday met a section of leaders including some who wrote to her this August demanding a complete organisational overhaul.
The highlight of the five-hour meeting, which ended with a plan to hold a 'chintan shivir' at the earliest opportunity to chalk the Congress' future strategy, was a demand by Sonia Gandhi's loyalists that Rahul Gandhi should assume the party leadership again.
Rahul Gandhi said that he was "ready to take any responsibility given by the party", but at the same time mentioned that the decision on presidentship should be left to the electoral process. His response was applauded by the attendees, according to sources.
Overall, the meeting stood out as an ice-breaking session with the 'letter-writers' whom Sonia Gandhi assured a constancy of dialogue and meetings to address their issues, besides announcing that the internal election process was underway and a brainstorming conclave like the ones held in Shimla and Panchmarhi in the past would be held soon.
The meeting, which included Sonia Gandhi's close associates, was significant as it was the first effort by the Congress leadership for a rapprochement with the 'letter-writers' who had raised questions over the leadership.
Some leaders like AK Antony, Ashok Gehlot, Ajay Maken and Pawan Bansal wanted Rahul Gandhi to assume the responsibility of Congress president.
The former Congress chief said he liked working with the senior leaders as they had also worked with his father late Rajiv Gandhi and he knew them since childhood.
Sonia Gandhi told those present that they were all a big family and will work together to strengthen the party.
The sources said she also gave a go-ahead to hold a 'chintan shivir' soon to resolve ideological issues within the Congress and the strategy of taking on the BJP as also to tell people about the ruling party's "massive failure" in governance.
The leaders said they had faith in the unifying face of party leadership and its ideological commitment, according to the sources.
The 'letter-writers' stressed that their concern was to strengthen the party and asserted that they were not "rebels" or "dissidents", as construed by some.
They said they had only raised issues in the party's interest to strengthen it, the sources said. They also pointed out the acrimony at the last CWC meet held virtually.
Those attending the meeting from among the 'letter-writers' were Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, deputy leader of the party in the Upper House Anand Sharma, former chief ministers Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Prithviraj Chavan, and MPs Manish Tewari, Vivek Tankha and Shashi Tharoor.
The sources said after everyone raised their concerns, Azad said they were grateful that the leadership heard them and hoped the issues raised by them would be resolved "with integrity and honesty".
Asserting that there was no dissidence in the Congress, party leader Pawan Bansal, a Sonia Gandhi loyalist, said the meeting was held on a positive note and in a congenial atmosphere with all the leaders expressing their views and suggesting ways to make the party stronger.
Sonia Gandhi also agreed that more working committee meetings should be held, the sources said.
This was also the first time that Gandhi met Congress leaders in person since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The meeting was held at the lawns of her 10, Janpath residence, which was followed by lunch.
Besides former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra were among those who attended the meeting.
"Discussions were held on a positive note at the meeting where leaders talked about how to strengthen the party at all levels. Congress chief Sonia Gandhi said we all are one big family and we all should work to strengthen the party. Rahul Gandhi also talked about strengthening the party," Bansal told reporters after the meeting.
"There is no dissidence in the Congress party and all are committed to working unitedly to energise the party and fight all those forces which are trying to put upend the idea of India, as enshrined in the Constitution and as articulated by the founding fathers of India's Constitution," Bansal said.
Congress leader and former Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan said this was the first meeting to discuss ways to strengthen the party and more such meetings would be held.
He said 'Chintan Shivir' like those held in the past in Shimla and Panchmarhi would be organised.
The Congress had organised both the Pachmarhi and Shimla 'Chintan Shivirs' when the party was in the opposition. While the Pachmarhi Shivir was organised in September 1998 when Gandhi had just taken over the party's reins, the Shimla Shivir was held later in July 2003.
Another Congress leader Harish Rawat said that every leader spoke about unitedly working towards strengthening the party.
Former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath and senior leader P Chidambaram were also part of the meeting, the sources said.
Among Sonia loyalists were A K Antony, Ambika Soni, Ashok Gehlot, Harish Rawat, Ajay Maken, Pawan Bansal and Bhakt Charan Das.
Incidentally, AICC general secretary (Organisation) K C Venugopal and the party's media in-charge Randeep Surjewala were not part of the meeting. Among the prominent 'letter-writers' who were absent was Kapil Sibal.
The sources added that Chidambaram called for strengthening the PCCs instead of becoming a "general secretary-specific party". He also suggested that general secretaries should spend more time in party offices, while Anand Sharma said that they should be on the ground in the states.
The Congress has already decided to hold elections for the post of Congress president and that process is underway. This followed a stormy Congress Working Committee meeting in August after the letter's contents became public.