NEW DELHI: The Congress was on Sunday in the midst of a growing tumult with the party deeply divided on the leadership issue on the eve of the crucial Congress Working Committee(CWC) meeting amid indications that its interim president Sonia Gandhi might offer to quit.
As the main opposition party faces yet another internal crisis, leaders including its chief ministers and PCC chiefs rallied behind the Gandhi family, calling for Sonia to stay or Rahul Gandhi to take charge again after a section of its top leaders called for sweeping changes in the way the party is run to arrest the drift.
The pro-reform leaders had in a letter to Sonia Gandhi sought a "full time" chief who is active on the field and also an institutional leadership mechanism to collectively guide the party's revival with the Gandhi family an integral element as part of the overhaul.
While Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, his counterparts in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan Bhupesh Baghel and Ashok Gehlot, Congress leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and former ministers Ashwani Kumar, Salman Khurshid and KK Tewary backed the Gandhis, those wanting changes included Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma, Kapil Sibal, Mukul Wasnik, Manish Tewari, Shashi Tharoor and ex-Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda.
The details of the letter written around early August by the leaders, who included former union ministers, ex-chief ministers, former and current parliamentarians and senior functionaries, have emerged just ahead of the CWC meeting on Monday during which the issues flagged are expected to be discussed and debated.
The CWC is the party's apex decision-making body.
The letter, however, stressed that the Nehru-Gandhi family will "always remain an integral part of the collective leadership" of the Congress party.
After details of the letter became public, sources close to Sonia Gandhi said that in response to it she might offer to quit as party's interim chief and ask the leadership to scout for a full-time president.
AICC media chief Randeep Surjewal also denied reports that she had quit.
Sonia reluctantly 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.
All eyes are now on the CWC meeting to see whether Sonia Gandhi resigns as she did in 1999 after the then Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha Sharad Pawar questioned her foreign origins.
The CWC eventually rejected the resignation and Pawar along with P A Sangma and Tariq Anwar had to quit the Congress to form the NCP.
Having a "full time" leadership that is active in the field and "visible" in party offices, dissolution of powers to state units and revamping the CWC in line with the party constitution are some of the far-reaching suggestions made by the 23 senior Congress leaders to revive the organisation, sources said.
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".
Highlighting the gravity of the challenges facing the party, they said it was "imperative" to urgently establish an institutional leadership mechanism to collectively guide the party's revival.
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 an overhaul 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 in a statement, 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."
Some leaders close to Rahul have also written parallel letters to the CWC pressing for the Gandhi scion's return as chief.
In his letter, 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.
The Delhi unit of the Congress also held an "emergency" meeting presided by its chief Anil Kumar and passed a resolution demanding that Rahul Gandhi be appointed as the party's national president without further delay, a statement said.
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 their letter, 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.
They were also critical of the way the CWC was being constituted and was functioning.
They are learnt to have pointed out that the CWC is not "guiding" the party effectively in mobilizing public opinion against the BJP.
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.