Kamal Nath, 74, whose government collapsed in March, is to credit for the meeting tomorrow between Congress President Sonia Gandhi and representatives of the 23 rebels who have demanded "visible" leadership.
Kamal Nath has a long-standing closeness with the Gandhi family and pointed out to the Congress president that the ranks of dissenters have been growing with the party's tanking in recent elections like Bihar. He stressed that not meeting the rebels is not productive and would only serve to postpone the inevitable.
So, tomorrow, the first meeting will be held in person with Sonia Gandhi and representatives of the 23 letter writers who, in August, dispatched a note that called for a huge overhaul of the party with elections at every level of its organization and made it clear that the Gandhis' current style of leadership is part of the party's big problems.
Kamal Nath will be present at this, the first in-person meeting of top leaders of the Congress since the pandemic broke out. (Sonia Gandhi has been conducting even Congress Working Committee meetings over Zoom). Significantly, Ashok Gehlot, the Rajasthan Chief Minister, who recently bested Sachin Pilot's revolt in Rajasthan against him, will also be in attendance. So will KC Venugopal, Congress General secretary and close confidante of Rahul Gandhi, the former Congress president. The roll call may include Ghulam Nabi Azad, who started the letter campaign and Kapil Sibal, who has been vociferously and vocally demanding change. The group of 23 (G-23) include Shashi Tharoor, Mukul Wasnik, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, Veerappa Moily, Manish Tiwari, Milind Deora and Prithviraj Chavan. It isn't yet clear if Sonia Gandhi's children Priyanka and Rahul will be present.
Kamal Nath has presented himself to both sides as an "honest broker" who wants to help the dissenters achieve their goal of party elections, present a rejuvenated leadership of the Congress, and help the Gandhi family adjust to the new situation which is a huge departure from the unchallenged supremacy they have enjoyed for their political careers.
In a sense, Kamal Nath is replacing - or trying to, anyway - Sonia Gandhi's trusted aide, Ahmed Patel, who died recently of Covid-19. Patel was also the party treasurer and Sonia Gandhi has reportedly offered that position to Kamal Nath, who is known for his good relations with corporate groups. Currently, Pawan Bansal is holding it as an interim charge. Ahmed Patel was also the bridge between the Gandhis and the senior leaders of the Congress party.
While the letter-writers are dismissed by those close to Rahul Gandhi as "Rajya Sabha-types all looking at electoral extinction", the "RG coterie" is virtually of the same calibre. His trusted aides who seek his return as congress presidential aren't exactly mass leaders who can win elections. The rebels, some of those who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, say they want a full-time leader as President. One said it was "cruel to insist on Sonia Gandhi with her ill-health being forced to continue". Most say sotto voce that after two defeats in general elections, Rahul Gandhi is not a leader in whom they can place their confidence. If he does not want the top job as he has so far claimed, they say, let the party move on and pick someone new. And every post must be elected and not nominated is what they say they will stress at tomorrow's session.
Gehlot's presence assumes significance. If he is persuaded to take up a central Congress job in a revamped structure, Pilot, who is making no secret of his restiveness, may get his dream job - Rajasthan Chief Minister. So far, Gehlot has absolutely refused to leave Jaipur for Delhi. A committee was set up to address Pilot's grievances after his revolt was tamed, but nothing has been addressed.
So what happens tomorrow? Two scenarios are expected to play out. Sonia Gandhi will concede a key demand to hold elections for all posts and ask that an election timetable be drawn up for the party. All posts including President will be up for elections. The Gandhis may want to support a proxy someone like Gehlot or Wasnik as the family candidate. Or Rahul Gandhi, who still appears reluctant to take charge officially (he has been calling all the shots without the position) may be appointed President again. If Rahul Gandhi says he will stand for election, the dissenters say nobody will contest against him as the Gandhi family enjoys huge goodwill among the Congress workers.
What is clear however is that Sonia Gandhi will now give up the holding operation she was managing for Rahul and finally retire. That will also create a vacancy for the post of UPA Chairperson. And, that is the second target of tomorrow's meeting. That is a political job that many opposition leaders are interested in. Expect some proxy battles from erstwhile leaders who have left the Congress and formed their own parties like Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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