Where Is Rahul Gandhi?

Rahul Ghandi
Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi speaks to villagers after visiting the house of one of the two teenage girls who were raped and hanged from a tree, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on May 31, 2014. Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

The Narendra Modi government has at last had a couple of parliamentary successes, with two urgent pieces of legislation—covering auctions of coal and other mining leases—passed March 20 at the end of the first part of the budget session. That was the result of political haggling and deal making with opposition parties, which Prime Minister Modi and his colleagues seem to have realized is more effective than the arrogant self-assuredness that came with their landslide general-election victory last year.

They have, however, changed tack too late to pass vitally important land acquisition legislation. The government has been so insensitive to popular pressures that it has managed to unite a motley collection of opposition parties into a cohesive force on the issue in the Rajya Sabha (upper house of Parliament), where it does not have a majority.

Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the Congress Party, has not been seen for a month. No one—presumably apart from his mother, Sonia, and a few other insiders—knows where he has gone, or why, though there is a strong rumor that he had a bust-up row with Sonia over party reforms and left.

I asked a couple of wise contacts in the India International Centre over the weekend, and one of them said, "He went first to Myanmar and then on to Cambodia." Well, that would be quite a trip, and Myanmar has been one of Gandhi's rumored hideaways in the past. But the official word is that he is "introspecting on the future of the Congress Party" in advance of taking over from his mother as party president.

Rahul, 44, vanished without warning just as the budget session started February 23 and was due back after two weeks. His presidential anointment was officially rumored to follow in April. But he extended his "sabbatical," and the rumor mill now says the session of the top-level All India Congress Committee, where he would take over, has been postponed until autumn, or later. He is now expected back "at the end of the month," which roughly means within a week.

His loyalists remain loyal, even though he has missed a month of key parliamentary debates that included the annual budget. But they are beginning to indicate impatience, while not daring to be critical enough to upset either "the family" or the equilibrium balanced around the dynasty at the top of the party.

Jyotiraditya Scindia, probably the most competent Congress politician of Gandhi's generation and the son of a former party leader, came near to criticism in aHeadlines Today TV interview last week.

He said several times that he accepted Rahul's (and Sonia's) leadership and asserted, "They both inspire us." But in answer to a direct question from interviewer Rajdeep Sardesai, he said, "Yes, I think the time for introspection is way over. I think the time for execution [of a new approach] should have started a couple of months ago,"

Sonia has had a splendid couple of weeks, literally leading her party from the front on two political marches through Delhi with a self-assurance and determination she rarely shows.

The first march was to former prime minister Manmohan Singh's home on March 12 to assure him of the party's support. He has been summoned to appear in court as an accused party in a case involving a coal mining lease scandal, which stemmed from decisions made when he was doubling up as coal minister. (More on that later—he is due to appeal the summons in the next few days.)

Next, Sonia led her own MPs and those of other parties to President Pranab Mukherjee's palace to protest the proposed land legislation, and then she toured poor farms in rural areas to express sympathy with the farmers' problems. She spoke out with more determination than usual and looked comfortable in her role.

Maybe she has been trying to show Rahul that she has political strength and that he should not try to ignore her views and the advice of elders when he takes over the party. Or she could merely be trying to ensure that Congress does not crumble too far by the time he steps in. The party is split, with many older leaders fearing Rahul's plans to revamp the organization and hold elections for posts at all levels, and these elders may be encouraging Sonia to reestablish her authority.

Scindia's remark indicates that his generation wants the sort of structural and democratic reforms that Rahul has talked about, but is growing impatient with his apparent reluctance to come to grips with real political leadership.

At the same time, however, it is worth noting that the 13 other regional and leftist opposition parties that were willing to be led to the presidential palace by Sonia would almost certainly not have fallen into line behind Rahul.

Congress did so badly in the general election that it has only 44 of the 542 seats in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament), so it does not even qualify as the official opposition party. It has been heavily defeated in five state assembly polls since the general election, including in Delhi, where it had ruled for 15 years.

It is now making the land legislation the main basis of its opposition to the government. It aims to build on growing public concern, bordering on distrust, about Modi and of his government's apparent authoritarianism and lack of interest in protecting Muslim and Christian minorities. The land legislation fits into that theme because it could hurt the poor by toughening up a land bill, passed by the Congress government, so that it is easier and faster for agricultural areas to be used for industry and other development.

But such a campaign needs leadership, and that provides Rahul with a chance to reemerge from wherever he is and take charge of his party. If he's not up to it, it might be better if he stayed away and tweeted, "Sorry, folks, I'm out."

John Elliott's new book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India). This article first appeared on ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com.