The social distancing between sofas on the lawns of 10, Janpath on Saturday was just about perfect at around 8-10 feet, and while the conversation was polite and tempered, the chasm between the dissenters and the Gandhis might take more effort to bridge.
The day was sunny, setting the ambience for the 19 participants who reflected a subtle balance. There were seven “letter writers”, an equal number of “loyalists”, the three Gandhis and Kamal Nath and P Chidambaram who did not fit in either camps. They were not “dissenters” but did voice some of the G-23’s concerns.
The five-hour discussions followed an unstated agenda with some meandering conversation as well. There were self-exculpatory comments from one of the G-23 and other small asides but barring the odd loo break, the Congress seniors sat through, with alternate speakers from each “camp”. Priyanka Gandhi suggested Sonia would leave the meet for about half an hour but the party chief sat through the deliberations. There was no lunch break, as the fare was circulated at the sofas where leaders sat spaced out in the lawn.
It was a rare face-to-face discussion for Sonia who has not met many visitors. It was also an opportunity for the letter writers to meet Rahul Gandhi, with whom most of them share strained ties. How far his assurance that he values seniors — something he has said earlier too — will go in easing tensions is not clear as the suspense over his plans continues. For the letter writers, the question remains whether he will be back full time as president, or a “compromise” candidate will be offered to the party. The latter may open the field to more than a few, who would however need to pass the loyalty test. It may also lead to an unexpected contest.
The next rounds of the tussle within the party may be played out as the electoral college for party president firms up. Will it be just AICC, as can be the case in the event of a mid-term vacancy being filled, or a wider exercise, is a key variable.
There were no clear conclusions but the discussion is seen as a recognition on part of the leadership that business as usual may not be possible. Priyanka’s outreach with some of the G-23 prior to the meeting, might acknowledge this.