Rahul Gandhi chills in Thailand while party struggles
The embarrassment is mounting for India's opposition party as it heads into a pivotal showdown with the government minus its highest-profile figure. Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Congress family dynasty, is taking an extended break in Thailand. Some say he's doing some soul-searching but others say he's just sulking at the way party elders treat him.
Gandhi reportedly flew to Bangkok on Thai Airways flight TG 332 on Feb 16 for a period of self-reflection that is expected to last "a few weeks" after seeking the permission of his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. "He needs some time," she told reporters last week.
The Congress president refused to say whether her son, a Lok Sabha (lower house) member and the Congress vice-president, was angry for being overlooked and badgered by senior leaders in the party.
Rahul Gandhi's absence comes at a time when his party is fighting to prevent the current government from gutting the farmer-friendly land acquisition law, one of Rahul's pet projects, which the former Congress-led government passed in 2013. Congress says the changes that the Narendra Modi administration plans, aimed at making land acquisition easier for industries, are "anti-farmer" and "anti-poor".
Congress spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi said that Rahul Gandhi was vacationing to "reflect upon recent events and the future course of the party". He said the party vice-president "wants to do introspection on what happened with regard to Congress in recent times and earlier".
Congress has lost elections in Delhi, Maharashtra, Haryana, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana since May last year. The 130-year-old party, whose leaders once fought for Indian independence from British rule, was reduced to its lowest-ever tally in the general elections in May last year.
Today Congress on its own governs only about 6% India's population of 1.2 billion. Besides Karnataka, it has governments in five other small states. It rules another 6% population of the country in alliance with smaller parties in Kerala, Assam and Uttarakhand.
Congress general secretary Shakeel Ahmed defended Rahul Gandhi's decision to go on a sabbatical. Ahmed told Asia Focus that it was not wrong to take leave for introspection. "Who does not take leave? I left for America after taking a two-month leave [with permission] from Sonia Gandhi but had to cut it short due to a tragedy in my house," said Ahmed, who has just returned from his foreign sojourn.
Ever since Rahul Gandhi entered Parliament in 2004 he has been sending mixed signals about whether he really wants to lead Congress, something many consider his birthright. Some foreign media call him "the reluctant prince".
The Times of India put it more bluntly in an editorial last week: "The trouble is that Rahul's journey of self-discovery is never-ending. While he keeps struggling to find his centre in politics, the party he represents continues to vanish."
Another Congress leader, Sanjay Nirupam, said he wondered why the Nehru-Gandhi scion was not leading the party despite his clear popularity with the public. "He is trending on Twitter. People are concerned. He is future of the party," Nirupam said in an interview with Asia Focus.
#WhereIsRahul trended at number two on Twitter in India with 12,000 people having commented on the subject by late Feb 24. "The future of the Congress is missing from the present," was one of the comments.
Congressmen considered close to Rahul Gandhi told Asia Focus on condition of anonymity that the young parliamentarian was peeved at being criticised and prevented from pursuing his ideas by the old guard. As well, even though he is a party vice-president he has not been allowed to replace some old officials with his chosen younger leaders.
"Nobody listens to him in the party. Leave aside having a say in the formation of Congress's central structure, he does not even have a say in the appointment of state secretaries. He has no power in the organisation and yet has been held responsible for every defeat the party has faced in last 10 months," said one party leader who helped run Rahul's last campaign in Amethi, his parliamentary constituency.
There are reports that Rahul Gandhi wanted to lead the campaign against the changes to the land acquisition bill. But when he took it up with his mother, she asked him to consult senior leaders in the party. At that point, Rahul decided it was time to take a break.
A young Congress leader, who is believed to be in Rahul Gandhi's camp, pointed toward a power struggle in the party when he tersely told Asia Focus that Rahul Gandhi was "only the vice-president of the party and not the president".
The Modi government used an ordinance recently amend the Land Acquisition Law passed by the Manmohan Singh-led Congress government in 2013. Pushed by Rahul Gandhi, it represented a sweeping reform of laws in effect since 1894 and was hailed as being fairer to farmers and the poor.
However, the ordinance passed by the Modi government did away with "procedural difficulties" in acquiring land for five critical sectors including industry, infrastructure and housing. It now wants to replace the ordinance with a law and introduced a bill in the Lok Sabha on Feb 24.
Opposition parties have joined hands in the two houses of Parliament to protest against the new bill, saying it is anti-farmer and will only promote the interests of industrialists.
The Modi government is also pushing ahead with a number of other economic reforms in the current parliamentary session, which ends on May 8 with a one-month vacation between March 20 and April 20.
Meanwhile, the All India Congress Committee (AICC), the opposition party's central decision-making body, is scheduled to meet in the first week of April. There is a possibility that it may choose Rahul Gandhi as president in place of Sonia Gandhi. But the heir-apparent's elevation appears unlikely without a confrontation with the old guard.