Rahul Redux Refuses to Grasp the Reins

Rahul Gandhi
India's Congress Party vice president, Rahul Gandhi, center, surrounded by his security personnel, speaks to a gathering of farmers on April 18 outside his residence in New Delhi. Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

Back from a mysterious 56-day "sabbatical" abroad, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party's reluctant leader, has seized on a political battle over India's land legislation and the financial plight of poor farmers as key subjects for re-establishing himself as a possibly credible politician.

He has made two major public appearances—at a public rally in Delhi on April 19 and in Parliament the following day—and has also spoken in Parliament since then on a net neutrality (equality of access to websites) issue. This has put him in the headlines with a series of sound bites aimed at projecting Congress as the guardian of the poor against the allegedly pro-corporate government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But he has failed to get to grips with the main current policy debate about the government's proposed changes to land acquisition legalization passed by the Congress-led government in 2013.

Gandhi left for unknown destinations on what his party called a sabbatical just as the first part of the parliamentary budget session was starting on February 23.

He has reappeared, nearly two months later, without any explanation of where he had been or what he was doing, nor any apparent concern for the controversy and speculation that he has caused. He flew in from Bangkok, which suggests he may have been in Myanmar, reportedly one of his regular secret retreats.

Apart from making a self-confident, combative and sometimes jokey speech in Parliament in both English and Hindi, Gandhi has behaved no differently from the past. There is little sign that he has returned with more substance and gravitas from what was billed as a period of political self-examination.

At a large but not very energizing farmers' rally on April 19, he played second fiddle to his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who made a more substantial speech. He did his usual quick, energetic waves of his hand to people he apparently had spotted in the crowd, flashing his dimpled smile, and fiddled with his cellphone.

In Parliament on April 20, as the budget session resumed, he played to the gallery. He taunted what he called Modi's "suit-boot ki sarkar," or suited and booted government, pausing on the word suit to show he was referring to the rather ridiculous suit with Narendra Modi spelled out in pinstripes that the prime minister wore in January when President Obama visited India.

This was only the fourth speech that Gandhi has made in Parliament since he became a member in 2004.

The earlier ones (first on nuclear power and later two on anti-corruption measures) demonstrated both a lack of parliamentary confidence and the supreme confidence of being heir apparent to lead the ruling dynasty. Now that the dynasty is no longer ruling, as Congress lost last year's general election, Gandhi seemed to enjoy skirting details and making jibes at Modi and the government, for which he drew roars of applause from opposition members of parliament.

He accused Modi of rewarding industrialists who had helped to finance last year's general election campaign with favorable legislation on the land issue. Mocking Modi's "achche din" (good times) general election promises, he dwelled on the current plight of farmers whose crops have been hit by unseasonal heavy rains at harvest time after an earlier poor monsoon. Taken together with falls in prices and reduced government support, this has affected rural incomes and led to a spate of suicides by destitute farmers.

Gandhi used these problems to spice up his speech during a debate on the government's land legislation, but he failed to tackle the primary issue of how to frame laws and regulations that protect poor people who are moved from their land for infrastructure and industrial projects, while not seriously impeding economic development.

The Modi government has drawn up amendments to the last government's land acquisition legislation that proved far too rigid in terms of prior approvals, including the need for projects to obtain the consent of at least 70 percent of affected owners and pass a social-impact test.

The amendments exempt five types of public sector development from the provisions of the act—defence projects, rural infrastructure, affordable housing, industrial corridors and infrastructure projects—which critics understandably say is far too wide ranging. The amendments passed through the Lok Sabha, where the government has a majority, but have been blocked in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, which is dominated by Congress and other opposition parties. This has led to the government introducing the amendments through an ordinance, which is now being renewed and was the subject of parliamentary debate.

Congress is using the land legislation as the basis for its attacks on Modi and his government, portraying it as an administration that has little concern for the poor and is mainly concerned with helping companies make profits. That is unfair because Modi needs to get the economy moving, but he is, however, developing a crony capitalist image, and his egotistical style does nothing to boost his appeal at home—even though he is a success on his trips abroad.

It is now up to Rahul Gandhi to capitalize on the government's problems and show that he is a worthy potential successor to his mother who has bound Congress together for over 15 years. She is ready for him to take over her post as party president, but he has delayed making a decision on this, though he was expected to be anointed maybe this month or later in the year.

While he was away, however, Sonia re-emerged as an effective party president, and this led several older party leaders publicly to state that she should remain. Most of them are worried that they will be pushed aside by Rahul in a generational change of top posts, but they also have a valid point since Rahul has not proved himself.

He now needs to appear in public regularly, as he has done in the last three days, and stop vanishing on unexplained trips (which has been his habit for years). He also needs to show that he has a real grasp of policy issues and can contribute to debates.

But, above all, he needs to turn his charm and public speaking ability into the sort of soundly based political leadership that the party needs if it is to recover from last year's devastating general election defeat.

John Elliott's IMPLOSION: India's Tryst With Reality is published by HarperCollins, India. This article first appeared at RidingTheElephant.WordPress.com.