Ahead of the crucial Congress Working Committee meeting on August 24, the party was deeply divided on the leadership issue with a section demanding a "full-time" chief and another backing Gandhis at the helm, amid indications that interim president Sonia Gandhi might offer to quit.
After around 20 leaders wrote to the party chief seeking collective leadership and a revamp of major bodies, sources close to Sonia Gandhi said she might offer to step down in the CWC and ask the party to look for a full-time president. AICC media chief Randeep Surjewala, however, denied it.
As the debate over the issue of leadership raged, another group of leaders put their weight behind the Gandhi family on Sunday, calling for Sonia Gandhi to stay or Rahul Gandhi to take charge again.
While Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, Congress leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and former ministers Ashwani Kumar, Salman Khurshid and KK Tewary backed the Gandhis, the dissenting group included former ministers Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal, Mukul Wasnik, Manish Tewari, Shashi Tharoor and former Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda.
Opposing the bid to challenge the Gandhi family leadership, Amarinder Singh said this was not the time to raise such an issue.
"The move by these Congress leaders to demand a rehaul of the party at this critical juncture would be detrimental to its interests, and the interests of the nation.
"What the Congress needs is a leadership that is acceptable not just to a few but to the entire party, through its rank and file, and the nation at large," he said, adding that the Gandhis were the right fit for this role.
"Sonia Gandhi should continue to helm the Congress as long as she wants," he said, adding that Rahul Gandhi should thereafter take over as he is fully competent to lead the party.
Gehlot termed the letter as unfortunate and said the Gandhi family has kept the party united.
"I am not aware of any such letter but if this is true, then it is unfortunate. They all have worked with the party for so long and the move of the letter is uncalled for," Gehlot told PTI.
Former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah tweeted, "It is unfortunate that the leadership of Gandhi family is being questioned by few. In these difficult times of undeclared emergency and attack on democracy by BJP, we should collectively strive to strengthen Congress and not weaken it."
In a letter to the CWC on Sunday, AICC secretary for Maharashtra Challa Vamshi Chand Reddy said any delay in Rahul Gandhi's reinstatement would be at the cost of the Congress.
Lok Sabha MP Manickam Tagore too demanded Rahul Gandhi's return as Congress president.
Tharoor put out a cryptic tweet quoting Jawaharlal Nehru that said “we have become prisoners of the past”.
"Without passion and urge, there is a gradual oozing out of hope and vitality, a settling down on lower levels of existence, a slow merging into non-existence. We have become prisoners of the past and some part of its immobility sticks to us," he tweeted.
Ashwani Kumar, Salman Khurshid and K K Tewary spoke against elections to the post of party president and favoured consensus.
Kumar and Khurshid both argued that elections would be divisive and consensus should be given a chance.
Tewary, a party veteran, feared the party might disintegrate if Gandhis withdrew.
In response to the letter by Azad and others, sources said, Sonia Gandhi might offer to quit as party's interim chief and ask the leadership to scout for a full-time president.
She took over as interim chief on August 10 last year following a request from the CWC after Rahul Gandhi declined the committee's unanimous appeal to stay as chief post the 2019 Lok Sabha poll debacle.
In their letter, the nearly 20 leaders including ex-ministers have asked Sonia Gandhi for overhaul of the organizational structure and changes to the leadership while some leaders close to Rahul have also written parallel letters to the CWC pressing for the Gandhi scion's return as chief. Surjewala, meanwhile, said, "I have not seen any purported letter and hence cannot comment upon it".
On the issue of Sonia Gandhi's possible resignation, Surjewala said, "Sonia Gandhi has not made any comment or has given any interview and media reports in this regard as false". In their letter, Azad and other leaders have also stressed on collective decision-making with the Gandhi family as its "integral part."
They have also called for the appointment of a full-time leadership which is active and which can be easily contacted by workers and leaders.
The pro-reform leaders are further learnt to have called for free and fair organizational polls from the block up to the working committee level. The leaders said that over-centralisation of the organisation and micro-management has always proven to be counter-productive, and that uncertainty over the leadership has "demoralised the Congress workers and further weakened the party".
They were also critical of the way the Congress Working Committee, the party's apex decision-making body, was being constituted and was functioning. Highlighting the gravity of the challenges facing the party, they said that it was "imperative" to urgently establish an institutional leadership mechanism to collectively guide the party's revival. The letter talked about forming the CWC in accordance with the Congress' constitution as well as reconstitution of the central parliamentary board and the central election committee
They are learnt to have pointed out that the CWC is not "guiding" the party effectively in mobilizing public opinion against the BJP.
Among leaders learnt to have signed the letter are Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad, deputy leader of Congress in Rajya Sabha Anand Sharma, former chief ministers Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan and Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, besides ex ministers Mukul Wasnik, Kapil Sibal, M Veerappa Moily, Shashi Tharoor, MP Manish Tewari, and former MPs Milind Deora, Jitin Prasada and Sandeep Dixit.
The signatories are also said to include former party unit chiefs including Raj Babbar, Arvinder Singh Lovely, Kaul Singh Thakur besides leaders Akhilesh Prasad Singh and Kuldeep Sharma.
They have called for contacting and winning back all those Congressmen who have quit the party and joined the BJP and expressed concerns over rank and file getting demoralised due to the "drift in the party."
While most of the leaders who have written the letter did not answer calls on Sunday, some who answered remained tight-lipped on the issue having set the stage for a CWC debate on the need for a Gandhi versus a non-Gandhi Congress President.
Lok Sabha MP Manickam Tagore, meanwhile, called for Rahul Gandhi's return as party president.
"Gandhis are the symbol of sacrifice. Decision by Congress CWC was a majority decision reflecting the will of 1100 AICC, 8800 PCC members, five crore workers and 12 crore supporters who want Rahul Gandhi as their leader," Tagore said, referring to the 2019 decision of the CWC to name Sonia Gandhi as party president after Rahul declined to accept a unanimous CWC appeal to stay in the post.In his letter to CWC, Challa Vamshi Chand Reddy said,"In view of existing conditions any further delay in promoting Rahul Gandhi as AICC president can cause incalculable harm to the progress of Congress Party and can be dispiriting to the Congress family.