NEW DELHI - Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi's absence from a farewell dinner for outgoing prime minister Manmohan Singh has set tongues wagging in the national capital with critics slamming it as an act of lack of respect for the senior statesman.
But, the party has come to his defence saying the Gandhi family scion was out of the country, and had met the premier before going.
The dinner, hosted by party president Sonia Gandhi on Wednesday night, was in honour of Dr Singh, who will be relinquishing his post after 10 years at the helm.
'Respect, Rahul Gandhi style: does not attend PM's farewell', said a headline in The Indian Express newspaper on Thursday which added that his absence left Congress leaders embarrassed and fumbling for answers. 'Rahul skipping farewell dinner raises eyebrows', said The Times Of India newspaper.
Television channels too chipped in, re-running segments about the absence of Mr Gandhi, 43, from the dinner which was attended by many senior Congress leaders, and where the 81-year-old Dr Singh was presented with a memento by the party president. His last day in office will be on Saturday - a day after results for the world's biggest elections are announced.
Mr Gandhi had snubbed Dr Singh last year by slamming the government's plans to introduce an ordinance that would void a Supreme Court order banning politicians who had received criminal convictions from parliament. The ordinance, Mr Gandhi had said is "complete nonsense. It should be torn up and thrown away" causing major embarassment to the prime minister. Since the incident, there has been a frostiness in the relation between the two, sources say.
On Thursday, the Bharatiya Janata Party leaders said Mr Gandhi's absence from dinner showed lack of respect for Dr Singh who served the country for ten years.
Opposition Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut called Rahul a "foreigner" who comes to India only on holidays.
Twitteratti also jumped on the bangwagon under the hashtag #RahulSkipsDinner with some caustic comments. "Rahul skipped dinner bcoz he had to deliver Italian pizza in 30 minutes" said one tweet while another said he skipped dinner because "He was watching Doremon on Pogo".
But Congress leaders came out to his defence, saying he had already met Dr Singh and is on a well-deserved break after three months of campaigning.
Minister of State for Home Affairs Mr RPN Singh said, "This issue should not be politicised. We should talk about great work done by the prime minister."
Officials in the Prime Minister's Office also came out with a statement saying that Mr Gandhi had expressed his inability to attend the dinner when he met Dr Singh on Saturday.
In a critical tweet, however, Congress ally and Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah slammed the party'ss handling of the situation: "If you knew he was not attending the dinner AND he'd explained his absence to the PM earlier put out the statement BEFORE the news breaks" (sic).