By shirking his commitment to Parliament, Rahul Gandhi inspires little faith in the opposition’s will.
Last month, the Congress party was decisively humbled beyond anyone’s anticipation, and brought to its lowest ever electoral performance with 44 Lok Sabha seats. But the errors of judgement and the inability to fight and win public confidence that marred its second term in government seem intact even in this moment of crisis. What else could explain the decision to anoint Karnataka leader Mallikarjun Kharge as leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, instead of party vice president Rahul Gandhi, who led the election campaign and is the de facto future of the party? Given the emaciated opposition in this Parliament, this is not a decision that affects only the Congress. A leader of the opposition who combines authority within his ranks and popularity outside is necessary to take the lead in challenging a government that enjoys a single-party majority, to keep a check on an unusually powerful executive.
This is not to disparage Kharge, a party veteran with a strong record, or to suggest that Rahul Gandhi is the ideal candidate. But at this point, the opposition needs all the conviction and strength it can command. Gandhi’s commitment to Parliament is indeed questionable, having attended a bare 43 per cent of Lok Sabha sittings and a mere 14 per cent of the standing committees he was a member of. Yet, for better or for worse, his party appears unable to do without his ambivalent leadership. Gandhi has always prioritised the party organisation over matters of government and legislation, but he must realise that the two are not separable, that revivifying the party requires some hope that it will capture state power, and that being a robust opposition in Parliament is now a duty it owes citizens, apart from party workers. That involves speaking for causes and interests that the government may disregard, and being heard for the strength of its argument.
By shirking that responsibility, Rahul Gandhi does not inspire faith in his capacity to lead a depleted, demoralised party. His talk of deep systemic transformation sounds more unconvincing than ever, given this disregard for the system as it exists, the business of elections and legislative work. It is not just letting down his party, but also sending a message about the way the Congress intends to conduct itself in the opposition.