The Congress is “getting weak” and needs to strengthened, senior party leader Kapil Sibal said at a public event in Jammu and Kashmir on Saturday, as members of the G-23 – a group of senior leaders who have openly questioned the Gandhis’ leadership style – converged to send a sharp reminder to the party’s central leadership ahead of five key elections in the next few weeks.
Apart from Mr Sibal, the group that took to the stage included former Rajya Sabha MP Ghulam Nabi Azad, former Union Minister Anand Sharma, Rajya Sabha MP Vivek Tankha, Lok Sabha MP Manish Tewari and former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda.
“The truth is that we see the Congress getting weak. That is why we have gathered. We gathered earlier too and we have to strengthen the party together,” Mr Sibal said.
“Our voice is for the betterment of the party. It should be strengthened everywhere once again. The new generation should connect (to party). We have seen the good days of Congress. We do not want to see it weakening as we become older,” Mr Sharma said.
Saturday’s meeting also comes days after Congress MP Rahul Gandhi’s controversial remark about the difference between voters in Uttar Pradesh and Kerala triggered a pushback from the BJP, with union ministers accusing the Congress of trying to “divide and rule” India.
“Be it Jammu or Kashmir or Ladakh, we respect all religions, people and castes. We respect everyone equally… that is our strength and we will continue with this,” Mr Azad said, in comments seen as cancelling Mr Gandhi’s remark and underlining the resolve for change in the Congress.
A senior member of the G-23 told news agency ANI the gathering in J&K was a “message to Mr Gandhi”. “We will tell the country that from north to south, India is one,” he said.
Mr Gandhi’s comment has already drawn guarded criticism from Mr Sibal.
The dissenting Congress leaders’ gathering has met with a careful response from the party, with Abhishek Manu Singhvi urging his colleagues to focus on working in poll-bound states.
“When elections are happening in five states, these leaders could have been in these states to strengthen the Congress… the best contribution to the Congress cause is to engage in these states,” he said, before saying that the party was, nevertheless, “proud of them”.
“With the greatest of respect (and) on behalf of the Congress, each of those in Jammu are senior leaders. We are proud of them and so are they. We are a family,” he added.
In August last year a number of Congress leaders – Mr Sibal and Mr Azad among them – wrote a letter to interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, asking for introspection over continued poor performances in elections, and for “full time” and visible” leadership to take the party forward.
An irritated Mrs Gandhi – who had only been cajoled into taking up the post after Rahul Gandhi stepped down over the Congress’ dismal showing in the Lok Sabha polls – offered to quit.
In December Mrs Gandhi met the dissenters, and a roadmap of sorts was chalked out. Last month it was decided that a new Congress chief would be elected in June, after the forthcoming elections.
However, this was after the G-23’s call for immediate organisational polls was overruled.
“What is happening in Congress is a clear violation of agreement at CWC meeting in December last year… there are no signs of any reforms or election,” a senior G-23 leader told ANI.
Sources quoted by ANI said Congress leadership is aware of the G-23 leaders’ sentiments on this matter and is monitoring the situation, although it is “not in a hurry to come to any conclusion”.
With input from ANI