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Rahul Gandhi’s Disappearing Act Jeopardizes His Party

As I write this column, Rahul Gandhi, Congress Vice President has conveyed his Holi wishes to the people of the country. The-46 year-old “youth leader” who aspires to lead the 30% youth population of India has yet again lost an electoral battle to 66-year-old Narendra Modi.

On Saturday, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand gave a decisive mandate in favor of the BJP and handed over Punjab to Captain Amarinder Singh. The Congress emerged as the single-largest party in Goa and Manipur, and it was almost certain that it would form government in the two states, which could be a face-saver.

But while his party cadre may have expected Rahul Gandhi to lead from the front, he was gone from the public eye. Like always, unannounced, without the slightest grace and astuteness of a leader whose party had lost Uttar Pradesh with a heavy margin, reducing its presence to a single digit. His alliance partner Akhilesh Yadav held a press conference conceding defeat, but Rahul Gandhi who wore matching clothes and walked hand-in-hand with Akhilesh was missing post a few congratulatory tweets.

He lauded the Indian democracy and then he was gone. While Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress, is away from the country for medical reasons, it was expected of Rahul Gandhi to hold centrestage and aggressively push for Goa and Manipur, but the youth leader had no such plan.

The BJP, on the other hand, had a Plan B in case it did not have the numbers for Goa. Despite a landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh, under the guidance of the top leaders, it showed no complacency and pushed its claims to form the government in the two states. Within hours, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar resigned and left for Goa to be sworn in as the Chief Minister of the state. This was pre-planned strategy and there was nothing extraordinary about it. This was simple electoral politics, that which was not just practiced by the BJP, but also by Rahul Gandhi’s late father and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Perhaps Rahul was away to meet his ailing mother, perhaps he was sick, perhaps he did not want to meet the press post the debacle of the party, perhaps he just wanted to be alone, perhaps he was tired and wanted to be away on vacation. Does any of this justify the absence of the defacto leader of the ruling party from the public eye? Does any of this justify the principal opposition to the ruling government in the country looking like a bunch of headless chickens? Does any of this justify the absence of a damage control exercise or a Plan B from the Congress?

Writer and historian Ramchandra Guha had famously referred to Rahul Gandhi as a well-meaning loser in 2014 after the party was thrown out of power after ten years with just 44 seats to its credit. This was the same Rahul who wanted to lead the party from the front, and famously tore his own government’s ordinance in front of the press. This was a portrayal of aggression by Rahul Gandhi who wanted to distance himself from his party by tearing an ordinance that negated the Supreme Court order on disqualifying convicted MPs and MLAs from office.

The country, which had never quite seen the political prowess of Rahul Gandhi, was in awe of a crown prince who defied his own party and its elected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for something he believed in. But where is that famed aggression of Rahul Gandhi when he has been left on his own? Where are those new ideas from Rahul Gandhi, ones which he believed the seniors and the “old lot” within were preventing him from expressing?

I do not think Rahul is a well-meaning loser, I am sure he, like most humans, is gifted and has his own personal goals and aptitude. But if that is the case, why is Rahul Gandhi making an entire party feel claustrophobic with uninspiring leadership?

And if he is indeed meant to be in politics, if he aspires to lead the Congress clan and its legacy, why does Rahul Gandhi allow himself to be labelled a well-meaning loser, who disappears when his partymen need him the most? Why are a bunch of shocked spokespersons meant to defend the wrongs of the leader and take upon themselves the failure of the crown prince? If Rahul Gandhi indeed wanted himself to be taken seriously, he should have been on television with Akhilesh Yadav, perhaps not holding hands or wearing identical clothes, but sharing the blame for the defeat and a promise to make amends. That would have been the sign of a true leader, a true statesman and a youth politician.

And this is where Narendra Modi despite all his much-criticized political rhetoric needs to inspire Rahul Gandhi and his fellow Lutyen’s youth leaders. Modi might have won the 2014 Lok Sabha, but his party and his fellow strategists never for a moment were out of sight or access for BJP members. If Modi’s BJP achieved a decisive mandate in 2014, it worked towards a landslide in 2017. Its leaders worked aggressively with ambition and enthusiasm to be seen in the public domain and to ensure that no amount of negative press over demonetization affected voters. Its cadre, inspired by the leader, took over social media and the leader, using his PR machinery, was everywhere. Whether it was celebrating Diwali with soldiers on the China border, or speaking the language of the masses of the aspirational class in his daily speeches.

Why has this energy been missing in Rahul Gandhi and his entitled party leaders since 2014? What stopped Rahul Gandhi from celebrating Holi with the widows at Vrindavan or briefing the media over chai on his poll strategy? His party acolytes might counter that he slept for a night in a Dalit house, but politics is not a one-act play, it is a 24×7 profession where a leader cannot take a month off, go incommunicado, and return expecting the country to be on standstill through his absence.

Why is it that a Sandeep Dikshit feels compelled to talk about all that is wrong with his party on a TV channel and not face-to-face with the man leading it? Why does the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh from the Congress get an audience with the Prime Minister while his own high command keeps him waiting? What prompted Himanta Biswa Sarma, the Congress leader from Assam, to go public with his grievance because he was not given a hearing by Rahul Gandhi himself?

The truth is, Rahul Gandhi, that the BJP seems to need you much more than your own party today, because under your leadership, the party is in self-destructive mode, it does not need an outsider to decimate it. The BJP is banking on your unannounced vacations, disappearances, your opaque model of functioning to carry on its governance despite many an ordinance which should have been torn by you in public. They might not confess this to you Rahul, but you are the BJP’s best bet for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

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