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Sonia Gandhi will stay interim president until an AICC session (File)

New Delhi:

The “dissent letter” by 23 Congress leaders that was seen to be a challenge to the Gandhi leadership evolved after months of planning and discussions by a core group, one of the signatories to the letter, a veteran congress leader, told NDTV.

The letter, calling for sweeping reforms, collective decision-making and “full-time, visible leadership” was a bombshell that dropped just days ago, but had been brewing for over five months, said this leader.

Stealth was ensured with the strategy of holding meetings in small groups – never more than five at a time — the signatory said. The meetings mainly took place at the residences of Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kapil Sibal and Anand Sharma, the core group that assigned to themselves the task of talking to various leaders to divine those who shared similar views about the Congress.

The discussions, according to the signatory, started in January this year and picked up around March-April, after the Madhya Pradesh fiasco. Rahul Gandhi loyalist Jyotiraditya Scindia’s switch to the BJP, which brought down the Congress government of Kamal Nath, jolted many within the party.

For the so-called “dissenters”, the main concern was their perception that Rahul Gandhi was “totally prejudiced” against veteran leaders seen to be closer to his mother Sonia Gandhi. He “wants us thrown in Yamuna,” carped the leader.

Worried about the state of affairs, the group kept asking for a face to face meeting with Sonia Gandhi. when the interim Congress chief did not grant an appointment, and that is when the letter plan formed.

For secrecy, no one was given a copy of letter; the draft was read out to each person. This is how the ginger group stayed under the radar for five months.

With their careful reach-outs, the numbers grew to over 20 by June-July. “We could have got more but decided to stay with a smaller group or the plan would have leaked,” said the signatory.

The leaders had a deadline of August 10 in mind – that’s when Sonia Gandhi’s one-year term as interim chief was to end.

However, the 73-year-old was admitted to hospital in July-end for what the party called a “routine check-up”.

“We waited till she came back from hospital and checked several times. She was back on August 2 and the letter was sent on August 7-8,” said one of the letter writers.

A second letter – a reminder – was sent a week or so later, when there was no reply to the first. “We urge you not to make any significant decision without addressing the concerns in letter,” the new letter reportedly said, reflecting the concern amongst the group of a successor to Mrs Gandhi being appointed without their knowledge.

Sonia Gandhi then called Ghulam Nabi Azad and said she had been unwell, so she could not respond. Mr Azad is on record saying: “I told Soniaji, your health is paramount, all else can wait.”

Mr Azad and three other signatories to the letter who attended the fiery Congress Working Committee (CWC) on Monday, faced a “choreographed attack”, said the signatories.

A furious Rahul Gandhi intervened shortly after the online meeting started and reportedly said: “I stopped my mother from reading the letter because it would upset her.”

This was a response to the dissidents saying they were being attacked when their colleagues had not even read the letter addressed to Sonia Gandhi. The contents of the letter were leaked a day before the meeting.

But after sharp attacks, accusations and sparring, the meeting ended on a conciliatory note with Sonia Gandhi saying all was forgiven.

The party endorsed the Gandhi leadership and pledged to boost Sonia and Rahul Gandhi at a time they have been at the forefront of the opposition’s fight against the central government’s policies. Sonia Gandhi would continue as interim Congress chief until an All India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting to be called in six months, the party said. The Congress also decided to set up a committee to examine the grievances in the letter.

The dissidents are said to be broadly satisfied that an AICC session has been called. They believe Rahul Gandhi will return as president, a post he relinquished after the Congress’s successive defeats in the national election. “But he now (after the letter) has to reckon with us,” said a leader.

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