India's Congress Party Vice President Rahul Gandhi (3rd R) shakes hands with a farmer during his meeting with the farmers outside his residence in New Delhi April 18, 2015. Gandhi returned on Thursday from a mysterious eight-week break in an undisclosed location that had prompted ridicule and questions from colleagues about his fitness to lead the opposition Congress party back to power. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee Image Credit: REUTERS

Unlike the Biblical tale of a prodigal son, the return of a foot-loose family member may not be a cause of great joy to his relatives. In the case of India’s Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, it can be a source of embarrassment and misgivings.

The embarrassment is likely to be caused by speculation about where the not-so-young prince was for nearly two months, what he learnt during the days away from the madding crowd and whether his ruminations — he is supposed to have taken a course in meditations (vipasana) — have eased the tensions caused by the setbacks suffered by his party from 2013.

On the other hand, the misgivings will be the result of the belief that the heir-apparent has played his last card and that there will be nothing new up his sleeve if the Congress fails to recover from its present dire straits.

It is clear that there is no scope for any more dramatic, if peevish, antics. Rahul has to either deliver, which means playing a palpable role in reviving the party’s fortunes, or fade away.

That the first task will not be easy is evident from the humiliating defeat which one of the Congress’s top guns in Maharashtra, Narayan Rane, has suffered in a Mumbai by-election, which cannot be glossed over by the party’s success in an Uttarakhand contest. After all, both Rane’s stature and the importance of India’s financial capital make the Mumbai outcome a special case. It can also seem odd that one of Rahul’s first public appearances will be at a farmers’ rally on the land acquisition law since he was expected to lead the party’s charge on the issue when parliament was in session. Instead, he disappeared from sight.

For the farmers, therefore, his act of returning to the fray not long after getting off a flight after a long stay abroad, can seem like that of a fly-by-night operator who cannot be taken seriously.

Apart from Rahul’s curious travelling habits, what may seem like an uphill task to his supporters are the dissenting voices within the Congress, which show that there are party members who have begun to look at him more as a liability than as an asset.

Till now, it was an occasional, relatively unknown politician calling him a “joker” or another urging mother and son to take a two-year break, which made news. But now, partymen of much greater importance have begun speaking out.

They range from former Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit, who had earlier blamed “elitists” for bringing the party to its present pass, to former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, who believes that the time is not ripe for Rahul to take charge because he is not experienced enough.

Similarly, former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s assertion that the cadres’ comfort level with Sonia Gandhi is still high is an indirect endorsement of Amarinder’s reservations about the heir-apparent.

Therefore, if Rahul thought that by staying away, he will jolt the party into realising his indispensability, he may be in for a surprise because what has happened is that his Houdini act has emboldened those in the party who had never thought much of him but had refrained from speaking out.

It is these tremors that appear to have persuaded the Congress to put off Rahul’s coronation for a later date — probably September — when it was earlier expected that he would don the party president’s mantle by this month.

The expectation among his supporters probably is that over the next few months, the shock and awe as well as the amusement caused by Rahul’s vanishing trick will subside. It is also possible that a rejuvenated vice-president will come out with all guns blazing, starting with the farmers’ rally and a more active role in parliament.

Unfortunately, what cannot be discounted is that the chances are that such a proactive role will expose his limitations rather than establish his leadership credentials. If his one major pre-election TV interview is taken as an example, the Rahul has a few set ideas beyond which he can get lost — as he sometimes does with his written notes.

His ideas revolve round the belief that India is a poor country, which makes it necessary for the government to play the role of the nanny. As his intervention in a Congress conclave, where he called for raising the cap on cooking gas cylinders from nine to 12, showed, Rahul favours the politics of doles and subsidies.

If this is contrasted with the “reformer-in-chief” — in Barack Obama’s words — Narendra Modi’s appeal to the well-off to surrender their gas cylinders, then it is obvious that Rahul inhabits a different world from that of the Indian prime minister. To the Congress vice-president, economic reforms have little meaning.

Since Rahul’s views reflect those of the Left, it has to be seen where he will meditate over a possible link between the decline of the Communist parties and of the Congress in India.

What cannot but engage Rahul’s attention in the coming days, therefore, is not only the matter of those who think that he is not ready for the top job, but also the need to clarify his economic ideas. Lessons in oriental mysticism may not be of much help in this respect.


Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst.