Rahul Gandhi storms back into limelight

Mr Rahul Gandhi (centre) meeting saffron farmers last month while on a three-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir. The Congress party vice-president has spoken up for the rights of the common folk, from farmers and fishermen to home buyers and students.
Mr Rahul Gandhi (centre) meeting saffron farmers last month while on a three-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir. The Congress party vice-president has spoken up for the rights of the common folk, from farmers and fishermen to home buyers and students.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Congress, however, is still hesitant to appoint vice-president its leader

Since he came back from a two-month political sabbatical in April, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has been at the forefront of the opposition party's efforts to regain public support after its humiliating defeat in the last general elections.

He has spoken up for the rights of the common folk, from farmers and fishermen to home buyers and students. He debuted on Twitter and in speeches has used sharp one- liners critical of the government, including accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of being indifferent to the plight of the poor .

Yet despite the unusual burst of activity from the publicity-shy 45-year-old, his elevation to the top post has been deferred once again. The Congress Working Committee, the highest decision-making body of the party, decided on Tuesday to put off internal elections for a year. That effectively extended the tenure of his mother, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, as party president.

Within the party, many are happy with the decision, saying it was just not the time for any changes.

"Mrs Gandhi is feeling energetic. This is not the time for Rahul to take over as president. It will lead to rifts within the party," said a senior Congress leader who did not want to be identified.

NOT TIME TO TAKE OVER YET

Mrs Gandhi is feeling energetic. This is not the time for Rahul to take over as president. It will lead to rifts within the party.

A SENIOR CONGRESS LEADER, who did not want to be identified

Those within the party see a disconnect between senior leaders and Mr Gandhi, who is surrounded by his own coterie of advisers.

"We have just come out of the coma (of the general election defeat). But we are still in the general ward. We haven't come out fully from the defeat," the Congress leader added.

 After being in power for two terms, the Congress party won just 44 of 543 seats in parliament last year. It has continued to fare poorly in state-level elections, winning not even a single seat in Delhi elections this year.

But over the last couple of months, the party has been showing some signs of revival.

With its small haul of MPs, Congress blocked Mr Modi's reform agenda, refusing to allow the upper house of Parliament, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not have a majority, to function.

As a result, BJP has been unable to push through crucial legislation like the land acquisition bill and Goods and Services Tax at a time when growth has slowed to 7 per cent.

Those within the party said that Mr Gandhi is now more involved in day to day workings of the party and interacting with many more members, with his mother Sonia asking leaders to consult him on all key decisions.

On Tuesday, Mrs Gandhi gave the credit for the party's increased political visibility to her son.

"The credit for this goes to every worker of the Congress Party, who under Rahul's active guidance, carried out a sustained agitation," she said.

Still, analysts said the Gandhi scion has not yet convinced people that he can lead the party out of its current woes.

There are many challenges including infighting in several state units of the party and managing allies such as regional parties Rashtriya Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United) in the state of Bihar which is going to the polls in multiple phases in the next two months.

After Bihar, elections are also taking place in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu where the party's prospects are dim.

"I think the prince is still under probation. He does not yet demonstrate as someone who is having that capacity to be able to take a party from that abyss of despair to heights of glory and inspire confidence through words. I don't think it will work to the advantage of the party for him to be elevated right now," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, pro vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore.

"Leadership may have come to him because of his surname but he has to consolidate like (grandmother) Indira and (father) Rajiv did. He hasn't been able to do so."

Mr Gandhi comes from the Gandhi-Nehru family which has given the country three prime ministers. He had previously refused any role in government and preferred to stay on the fringes of the Congress party until 2013, when he took over as party vice-president.

Yet there is no one who can pose a challenge to his leadership in the party, which has always depended on the Gandhi-Nehru legacy.

"It is inevitable. If not this year, then next year," said another Congress leader.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2015, with the headline 'Rahul Gandhi storms back into limelight'. Print Edition | Subscribe