Sonia Gandhi India Congress
Congress Interim party president Sonia Gandhi attends the Congress Working Committee's virtual meeting, in New Delhi on Monday. Image Credit: ANI

New Delhi: India’s main opposition Congress party on Monday rejected a request from its leader, Sonia Gandhi, that she be allowed to step down, after a rare challenge to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has dominated the party for seven decades.

Earlier on Monday, the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had offered to resign as interim leader after almost two dozen senior figures called for better decision-making in the party, which has ruled India for much of its post-colonial history.

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Her request was rejected by the party’s top decision-making body, the Congress Working Committee, which wants Gandhi and her son, Rahul, to remain in control.

“The CWC, reflecting the overwhelming view and desire of the rank and file of the Congress, unanimously resolved to strengthen the hands of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi in every possible way,” K.C. Venugopal, a Congress lawmaker, told a news conference.

Party spokesman Randeep Surjewala said: “The CWC authorises the Congress President to effect necessary organisational changes that she may deem appropriate to take on the challenges listed above. In the light of the above deliberations and conclusions, the CWC unanimously requests Sonia Gandhi to continue to lead the Indian National Congress until such time as circumstances will permit an AICC session to be convened.”

Prime Minster Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has dealt the Congress heavy defeats at the last two general elections, leading to disquiet in some sections of the party.

The Congress now controls just a handful of India’s 28 states, and the BJP has a comfortable majority in the national parliament.

The party meeting came after 23 senior Congress figures wrote a letter calling for better leadership of the party, two sources said - taken by many as a thinly veiled criticism of the Gandhi family.

The sources said the signatories to the letter wanted the Gandhi family to either play a pro-active role or step down, adding that more than 300 regional Congress politicians also supported the letter.

Controversy over letter

Controversy erupted during the seven-hour meeting several times after it was reported in a section of the media that Rahul Gandhi had claimed that the letter was written in “collusion with the BJP”, and on this senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal attacked Rahul Gandhi.

But later the party clarified its position and even Rahul Gandhi called up Sibal to clear the doubts. Later Sibal too retracted his earlier tweets and said he “was informed by Rahul Gandhi personally that he (Rahul) never said what was attributed to him. I therefore withdraw my tweet.”

In the capital, New Delhi, Gandhi family supporters held placards and shouted slogans outside party headquarters.

Sonia Gandhi took over de facto leadership of the party last year from Rahul. His father, grandmother and great-grandfather were prime ministers of India.