Rahul Gandhi said he is "ready to work for the party as all desire" at a meeting today with Congress "dissenters" who had written a letter criticizing the leadership and calling for an overhaul earlier this year. The comment, greeted by applause from all present, including the rebels, has reinforced talk about the 50-year-old returning as Congress president as the party prepares to elect a chief in the New Year.
The five-hour meeting between Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and the so-called "rebels" on the lawns of the Congress interim president's 10 Janpath home marked the first move towards reconciliation after months of feuding, revolt and resignations.
Rahul Gandhi said, "I am willing to work for the party as all of you desire," senior Congress leader Pawan Bansal said after the meeting. The former Congress president reportedly also agreed that "better communication" was needed and the party needed to strengthen itself at the booth-level.
But sources say Mr Gandhi did not mince his words as he addressed veterans like Kamal Nath, who lost power in Madhya Pradesh after senior leader Jyotiraditya Scindia rebelled and switched to the BJP.
He reportedly told Kamal Nath that even though he was Chief Minister, "RSS officers" (BJP's ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) ran Madhya Pradesh. To P Chidambaram, Mr Gandhi reportedly remarked that in his state Tamil Nadu, the Congress, at the booth level was only an adjunct to ally DMK at the booth level.
Asked whether Mr Gandhi's comment and the cheers that greeted it meant his return as chief, Mr Bansal said: "No one has an issue with Rahul Gandhi... don't put words in my mouth. The process of electing a congress president is in the process."
The dissidents reportedly remained firm on their position of demanding an election for the post of Congress president, the Congress Working Committee and the parliamentary board.
Some of the leaders outside the rebel group, like Mr Chidambaram, reportedly backed the demand and asked for a shift from the "general secretary approach" of running states. The state Congress chief should be empowered and booth level committees must be strengthened to help the Congress retain its voters, they suggested in what was described as a "free and frank discussion".
Rahul Gandhi's sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the Congress general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, talked about rebuilding the organization and "taking care of grassroots workers". She reportedly called for "better inner party communication".
Congress leaders said "no one was critical of Rahul Gandhi" at the meeting and the rebels "supported him".
Rahul Gandhi quit as Congress president after the party's national election defeat last year, forcing Sonia Gandhi to take over as interim chief until the party elected a new chief. Since then, he has given no indication of any change of heart.
On Friday, top Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said "99.9 per cent" leaders in Congress wanted Rahul Gandhi to lead the party again but the final decision was his.
Over a year since his resignation, the Congress has not arrived at any clear solution to its leadership crisis. The party has also suffered an unending losing streak, not just in states, but also in local polls in states like Kerala and Rajasthan. It was completely outmaneuvered by the BJP in states like Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, where rebellion brought its governments crashing down. In Rajasthan, a revolt has been barely kept under the lid.
A letter in August by 23 Congress leaders - dubbed the G-23 - noted the leadership drift and called for an "active and visible leadership" and collective decision-making.
Over the next few months, the letter writers found themselves isolated and shunned by the Gandhis, until today.
The Congress called it a the first of a series of meetings - to be held over the next 10 days - between the Gandhis and senior party leaders ahead of organizational elections.
"A positive discussion was started by Sonia Gandhi. She talked about defining the narrative , deciding the top leadership," Mr Bansal said.
"Sonia Gandhi said we all are one big family and should work to strengthen the party. There is no dissidence in Congress, all are committed to work unitedly to energise the party."
The dissenters, including Ghulam Nabi Azad, Shashi Tharoor and Anand Sharma, spoke directly to the Gandhis for the first time since the letter bomb. AK Antony, Ashok Gehlot and Ambika Soni were among the loyalists at the meeting.
Kamal Nath reportedly played a big part in getting Sonia Gandhi to agree to the meeting.