Sonia Gandhi will return as Congress president, for now, two years after she handed the top job to her son Rahul Gandhi, the party's top decision-making body, the Working Committee, decided on Saturday after a 12-hour meeting.
Pitching it as a stop-gap measure, the party said it will pick a new president when its plenary session is held later this year. Rahul Gandhi had quit the party's top post in May after its disastrous performance in the Lok Sabha election and subsequently refused the party's requests to withdraw his resignation.
On Saturday morning, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi had excused themselves from group meetings held to decide on a new chief, saying they cannot be part of the selection process. Despite Rahul Gandhi's insistence, the party failed to come up with a non-Gandhi alternative.
The Congress Working Committee said all those present in the meeting wanted Rahul Gandhi to continue as the party chief. However, since he refused, Sonia Gandhi was requested to take over as interim president. It also passed a resolution, thanking Rahul Gandhi for his service.
The Congress's state units and the legislature parties took part in the meet that ended around 11 pm. There was suspense over whether the party will elect its new leader or go by nomination, as it happened traditionally.
Rahul Gandhi was said to be in favour of a broad consultation before zeroing in on a candidate, which led to discussions held by five committees representing the east, north-east, south, west and north zones.
The party's veteran leader Mukul Wasnik - known to be close to Sonia Gandhi - was earlier said to be in the race for the job. The other contender was Mallikarjun Kharge, who was the party's leader in the Lok Sabha during the first term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government.
Sonia Gandhi was party president for 19 years and during this period, the Congress headed two back-to-back governments at the centre. Last month, when asked if she was open to taking over as temporary party chief, Sonia Gandhi was non-committal. Battling health problems, she had significantly reduced her public engagements and she has hardly campaigned during recent elections.
Her return as interim chief comes ahead of a string of state elections later this year. There has been criticism that the party's inability to sort out the leadership issue has drawn attention away from these key elections - the first since the Lok Sabha elections. It has also upset the leaders and workers and an exodus is likely if the matter was not sorted, senior party leader Shashi Tharoor has warned.
The Congress had been decimated in the Lok Sabha elections, winning only 52 seats - a marginal increase over its score of 44 in 2014 election. Accentuating the defeat, Rahul Gandhi lost his traditional family turf Amethi to the BJP's Smriti Irani.
Insisting that "accountability" must be maintained, Rahul Gandhi announced his decision to step down at a closed-door meeting of the Working Committee on May 25. He also ruled out his mother Sonia Gandhi and sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's taking over the top post, underscoring that the Congress must look for a non-Gandhi leader.
For most of its 134-year history, the Congress always had the Gandhis at the helm, except for several years in the 90s after former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. But the party did not do well under Sitaram Kesri and several leaders convinced Sonia Gandhi to lead it.
After being voted out of power in 2014, the Congress has struggled to win elections or even give the impression that it can be the leading opposition bloc against the might of the BJP led by Prime Minister Modi.