Since Rahul Gandhi joined his mother to help lead India’s ruling political party about a decade ago, he has mostly stayed on the sidelines, turning down cabinet posts and rarely speaking to the media.
That changed when he gate-crashed a press briefing last week to denounce a cabinet order allowing convicted lawmakers to retain their seats. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, hand-picked by Gandhi’s mother Sonia to run the country in 2004, was forced to retract the order two days ago while rebuffing calls to resign over the public rebuke.
“It marks the transformation of a reluctant Rahul to a more determined Rahul,” said N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the New Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies. “His move has put the spotlight on him and has broken Modi’s momentum,” he said, referring to Narendra Modi, the main opposition party’s candidate for prime minister.
Gandhi’s action, lambasted by opponents as an election ploy, helps to distance his Congress party from Singh’s administration before elections that must be held by May in the country of 1.2 billion people. Corruption scandals and an economy that grew at the slowest pace in a decade last fiscal year have bolstered support for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
The episode began on Sept. 24, when Singh’s 31-member cabinet approved an executive order to negate a July ruling by the country’s top court to bar some lawmakers convicted of crimes from holding office. Ruling party leaders including Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram initially defended the order amid criticism from the BJP.
Congress party spokesman Ajay Maken told reporters gathered three days later at New Delhi’s press club that the cabinet move was “perfect” and emanated from the “collective wisdom” of Singh, Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. While speaking, he suddenly received a phone call, and announced that the party’s vice president would soon join.
Rahul Gandhi arrived about five minutes later. When in front of the cameras, he told reporters the order was “nonsense” and it should be “torn up and thrown away.”
After the brief appearance, Maken again took the microphone and quickly praised the 43-year-old leader.
“Rahul has given an opinion on the issue, and now it is the Congress view,” he said.
The exchange caught the 81-year-old Singh by surprise just as he was about to meet President Barack Obama in Washington D.C. Reporters traveling with him asked if he would resign.
“I am not the master of what people say,” Singh said, adding that the decision had been discussed twice with the cabinet and also with the “core group” of the party. “When I go back I will try to find out the reasons why it had to be done that way and how do we handle it.”
Within 24 hours after Singh arrived back in India, he met with his cabinet and revoked the ordinance. It also moved to withdraw legislation that would have the same effect.
Rahul Gandhi yesterday expressed regret for his tone while standing by the statement.
“My mother said the words I used were wrong, but I was right in sentiment,” he told reporters in Ahmedabad, according to Times Now news channel. “I think I used strong words, and I could have avoided those strong words.”
Gandhi was responding to the mood of the growing middle class, which is aghast at misgovernance and the political class’s eager willingness to protect its own interest at the expense of public interest, the Times of India newspaper said in its editorial today.
Gandhi’s family has dominated Congress and Indian politics since freedom from British rule in 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru, Rahul’s great-grandfather and independence movement hero, became the country’s first prime minister. He was followed by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father. Both were assassinated, drawing comparisons with the Kennedy family.
For most of his political career, Rahul Gandhi has avoided weighing in on issues of national importance. He rarely speaks in legislative debates and has missed more than half of the sittings since the present term convened in May 2009, according to records on parliament website.
When he has taken up causes, he’s been accused of staging publicity stunts. In 2009, he spent a night in the house of a Dalit, the lowest in India’s caste hierarchy, with then-U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband. Two years later, he dodged police at an early morning farmer’s protest near Delhi while riding pillion on a motorbike.
“He is normally fiddling all the time while Rome is burning,” said Jatin Gandhi, who co-authored a biography of Rahul Gandhi and isn’t related to the man. “He is trying to take some attention away from Narendra Modi.”
Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state, took aim at Rahul Gandhi during a New Delhi campaign rally on Sept. 29, calling the election a choice between a “prince” and a leader who once served tea on the railways. His party may win three out of four states holding elections in the next few months, indicating a surge in support before national polls, according to an opinion survey released last month by the Times Now channel and C-voter.
“Only sycophants are giving credit to Rahul Gandhi for the withdrawal of ordinance,” BJP spokesman Sidharth Nath Singh said. “The prime minister is holding office without any power and the family is enjoying power without accountability. This is a sorry state of affairs.”
Whether the move will pay off at the polls for Congress remains to be seen. After Rahul Gandhi last year took charge of the party’s campaign for state elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, it finished in fourth place.
Either way, Rahul Gandhi has demonstrated to the nation his influence over the party and the government, according to Subrata Mukherjee, a former political science professor at Delhi University.
“There is no party minus Gandhi,” Mukherjee said. “The Congress Party does not exist without him.”