At a high-ranking Congress meeting earlier this month, Congress President Sonia Gandhi took full responsibility for the party’s debacle in the Punjab elections, said a Congress official present at the meeting, a startling move that appeared to deflect blame from her children Rahul and Priyanka, who were closely involved with key decisions in the run up to the polls.
The Congress was swept out of power in Punjab dropping from 77 to 18 seats in the wake of immense internal turmoil after it replaced Chief Minister Amarinder Singh at the last minute and appointed his bete noire, Navjot Sidhu as party President.
Ms Gandhi’s comments came during a recent meeting of the Congress Working Committee to discuss the party’s string of defeats in the recent assembly elections including Punjab, a gathering attended by over 60 of the party’s top most leaders.
During the meeting, Ghulam Nabi Azad, senior Congress leader and a member of the so-called G-23 group of Congress dissidents reportedly asked who is responsible for the “massacre in Punjab”.
Who took the decision of replacing Amarinder Singh three months before the elections with Charanjit Channi? Who appointed Navjot Singh Sidhu as state President, someone who kept up a running commentary on the Congress? Mr Azad is said to have asked, questions seen as directed towards the Gandhi siblings, also present during the meeting.
But Sonia Gandhi is said to have cut Mr Azad off, asking him not to go further with these questions or take anyone’s name, saying she took all the decisions in Punjab, and that she takes full responsibility.
Mr Azad responded by thanking her for “taking responsibility”, said a Congress source.
These revelations shine light on the continuing turmoil within the Congress party that has seen increased pressure on the leadership of the Gandhis after the party’s latest election setbacks.
Two members of the Congress dissident group, Kapil Sibal and Manish Tiwari have publicly criticised the party leadership in interviews, with Mr Sibal saying that the party’s top brass are “living in cuckoo land” and also criticised Rahul Gandhi, saying “He is not the president of the party, but he takes all the decisions.”
But the dissident group seems to be divided on how far to go in the push for change: full time Congress leaders like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma are said to be keen to avoid a split in the party since they think it would weaken the Congress irretrievably and help the BJP. They are said to be advocating internal reform including making decision making less centralised around the Gandhis, a view not shared by the ‘hardliners’ like Mr Sibal and Mr Tiwari, said to be pushing for drastic steps in the event of resistance from the Congress leadership.
Much of how the crisis plays out could pivot on the coming elections for a new Congress President, scheduled later this year.
While it has been billed as a democratic exercise by the party, the dissident group believes that the elections are designed to ensure a no-contest, and will most likely see the return of one of the Gandhis at the helm of affairs.