Kalyani Shankar

Why does the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi hog the front-page headlines for all the wrong reasons? The Gandhi scion has done it again by disappearing on the eve of the Budget Session of Parliament when his party members expected him to lead the attack on the Modi Government. Gandhi often goes abroad and has missed many other important occasions like the farewell party to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the 130th birth anniversary of the party, to name just a few.
Surprisingly, this time the Congress had made his sabnatical public. Gandhi could have spared himself much criticism had he chosen some other time for his sabbatical. Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh has rightly stated that while the idea of a vacation was not bad, the timing was not good.
There are quite a few theories about the mysterious sabbatical. The first is that Gandhi wants full control of the party. He has had been an understudy for the past 10 years. Now, he wants to build his own team.
In the Congress, the Gandhis are so powerful that whenever the vice president wants he can have take over. So, what’s stopping him? It could be that the Congress’s worst ever performance in the Lok Sabha poll is making him reluactant to take charge of a sinking ship. Also, old timers are still betting on his mother, Sonia Gandhi’s leadership.
It is possible that Gandhi is on a confrontational path and the sabbatical was his way of forcing the point. His main problem is working with member of the old guard, some of whom are not computer savvy, while Gandhi’s office functions only on e-mails and SMSs.
But unlike his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, who got rid of the ‘syndicate’ and consolidated power within the party, Gandhi does not have the political acumen to win his way. Anyone who knows the Gandhi family also knows how close Gandhi is to his mother. In fact, the critics often accuse Gandhi of being more of a mother than the party president when it comes to matters involving Gandhi. In case of a showdown, Gandhi is likely to yield to pressure from her son.
Another possibility is that Gandhi is simply sulking. Since the Lok Sabha debacle, the old guard and the young guns have been at war. The former had been sidelined during the Lok Sabha poll, as Gandhi controlled the campaign including candidate selection.
In this context, it is absurd to say that Gandhi does not have power or the old guards overrule his ideas. On the contrary, he has had his way on most issues. Most of the Congress State unit presidents have been handpicked by him. He wanted to have primaries to select the candidates for the Lok Sabha poll but that idea failed. He was experimenting with elections in the youth Congress and the NSUI but did not succeed.
The fight for primacy between the old guard and the Gandhi’s coterie has reached its heights now. The old guard is apprehensive of their future and not willing to go without a fight. Gandhi wants a mix of the old and the new but her son is resisting.
That said, it is also possible that Gandhi has had enough of politics – he has always been a reluctant politician – and wants to quit. He might have realised that he cannot be a 24/7 politician and the sabbatical is just preparing the party for his exit. This theory, however, is a little far fetched. He does not need a publicised sabbatical to quit; he can simply walk out after convincing his mother.
This brings us to yet another possibility: The sabbatical is a well thought-out strategy to deflect criticism from Gandhi. Probably the mother and son have decided that retreat is better than valour, and keeping away from the public glare is better for the time being. But then again, Gandhi has never been much of a public figure and doesn’t even attend Parliament regularly.
The bottom line is that the Congress needs to pull up its socks and regain the political space it has lost. Its April session can be one such occasion, and the Nehru-Gandhis should not miss this opportunity. Perhaps, after the  the sabbatical, Gandhi will return as a practical politician and take over the party.