Rahul Gandhi charges back into political fray

Mr Rahul Gandhi (above) has tapped into the anger of farmers who shouted support for him at a recent rally in New Delhi. The farmers are unhappy with the government's land acquisition Bill, which makes it easier for businesses to buy land.
Mr Rahul Gandhi (above) has tapped into the anger of farmers who shouted support for him at a recent rally in New Delhi. The farmers are unhappy with the government's land acquisition Bill, which makes it easier for businesses to buy land.
Mr Rahul Gandhi (left) has tapped into the anger of farmers who shouted support for him at a recent rally in New Delhi (above). The farmers are unhappy with the government's land acquisition Bill, which makes it easier for businesses to buy land.
Mr Rahul Gandhi (left) has tapped into the anger of farmers who shouted support for him at a recent rally in New Delhi (above). The farmers are unhappy with the government's land acquisition Bill, which makes it easier for businesses to buy land.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINCE returning from a two-month sabbatical nearly three weeks ago, Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi has thrown himself into his political work with new-found zeal.

He has made multiple interventions in Parliament, travelled by train to a grain market to woo farmers and trekked to a Hindu temple to bolster his religious credentials against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Taking the side of India's middle class, Mr Gandhi spoke in favour of Internet neutrality and accused the BJP government of trying to hand over Internet rights to big business. At the weekend, he listened as home buyers told of how they have been kept waiting for their new homes by powerful developers.

While critics dismissed Mr Gandhi's sudden burst of activity as nothing more than a flash in the pan, his supporters said the mood within the Congress party has improved considerably.

"The mood is tremendously upbeat, unlike the downbeat mood of the BJP. After 10 months of quietude, we are suddenly getting a sense that the Congress is very much in the running," senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar told The Straits Times.

"They (BJP) have obviously been shaken by (Mr Gandhi's) dramatic comeback. And they have been wrong-footed on the farmers' issue and are running for cover," he added, referring to farmers' anger over the land acquisition Bill, which makes it easier for businesses to buy land.

Mr Gandhi, political heir to the powerful Nehru-Gandhi family which has given India three prime ministers, has often been seen as a reluctant politician because of his refusal to take on any leadership role for years until 2013, when he became vice-president, as well as his disinclination to engage the media and his many unexplained absences from the political stage. He kept a low profile after his party suffered a humiliating defeat in last year's general election.

When Mr Gandhi decided to take time off in March, his decision was roundly criticised, even by his own colleagues who questioned the timing.

During his absence, the Congress was able to successfully counter Prime Minister Narendra Modi's land reform policy, accusing his government of being pro-corporate and anti-farmer.

Since his return, a re-energised Mr Gandhi has taken the government to task as he woos India's farmers as well as the middle class, large sections of which support the BJP.

"I have assured them that the way I am helping the poor and the tribals, I will do the same for the middle class. I will stand by them," he told reporters on Sunday.

While his efforts received some positive coverage in the Indian media and aroused interest in the Congress, political analysts said the Gandhi scion still has a long way to go to revive the party and convince his colleagues he is in it for the long haul.

New Delhi-based analyst Amulya Ganguli said: "He is now trying to do what he didn't do earlier. But he still gives the impression of being a part-timer dabbling in politics.

"Perhaps worse, he is pursuing an old socialist line of stalling development, which he thinks will benefit Congress."

Still, some believe that Mr Gandhi is finally showing signs of at least wanting to lead the party.

"He is pursuing the issues very well within and outside Parliament. I think he will continue in this activist mode," said Uttar Pradesh-based analyst Sudhir Panwar.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg