New Delhi:

A group of 18 Congress leaders — a mix of G-23 dissidents and some ‘newcomers’ — spoke in favour of a “collective, inclusive leadership” after a meeting at the house of senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad this evening. Their statement did not reflect any call for a non-Gandhi at the helm, or an organisational election, which a section in the party has been rooting for. It, however, demanded that the Congress be proactive to create a platform with other like-minded parties to take on the BJP in 2024 — aiming to end the slow isolation of the party amid the opposition.

Among the attendees, who between them covered six states, were Kapil Sibal, Manish Tiwari, Anand Sharma, Prithviraj Chavan — all part of the group of 23 dissidents. Shashi Tharoor, who was also a signatory to the explosive letter to Sonia Gandhi two years ago, but had maintained distance since, also attended the meeting, posting a cryptic tweet in advance about making “a few more mistakes”.

There were also ‘newcomers’ Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Raj Babbar, Shankar Singh Vaghela and Manishankar Aiyer.

“We believe that the only way forward is for the Congress to adopt the model of collective and inclusive leadership and decision-making at all levels,” read the statement.

“In order to oppose the BJP it is necessary to strengthen the Congress Party. We demand the Congress party initiate dialogue with other like-minded forces to create a platform to pave the way for credible alternative for 2024,” the statement added.

The venue of the meeting, initially the house of Kapil Sibal, was changed at the last minute as some of the leaders felt uncomfortable in view of his recent statement against the Gandhis. At an interview with Indian Express, Mr Sibal had said, “I want a ‘Sab ki Congress’. Some others want a ‘Ghar ki Congress'”.

Mr Sibal was also upset over the conclusions of the Working Committee meeting, which refused to hear of any resignation by Sonia Gandhi and her children and reaffirmed their leadership. “There is a Congress outside the CWC… Lots of leaders like us who are not in the CWC but in the Congress have an entirely different point of view,” he had said.

His strong statements, coupled with the presence of newcomers at the meet, had created a buzz about a serious rift within the party. But the change in venue signalled that any speculation about a split may be rash.

Two of the leaders who were present – Mr Azad and Anand Sharma – were also part of the Congress Working Committee meeting earlier this week, where they had made their views known. Mr Azad had spoken of the situation in Punjab, where the Congress suffered its worst defeat, at which Sonia Gandhi had interrupted, saying shielding Amarinder Singh was a mistake.

On Friday, a few of the dissident leaders had also met at the house of Ghulam Nabi Azad, where they expressed dismay about the Congress leadership not taking any corrective steps to revive the party and discussed the way forward.

The sweeping organisational changes that the G-23 had demanded two years ago are yet to materialise.

At the Working Committee meeting to postmortem the elections, there was talk of forming a new committee to prepare for the elections after the parliament session, but no commitment was given about any hard change.

Two days later, Sonia Gandhi had sacked the party chiefs of the five states where elections were held.