Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi returned to India Thursday, ending his nearly eight week-long “leave of absence” at an undisclosed location amid a fierce debate in the party over his capability to take over the reins from mother Sonia Gandhi.
Both Sonia and sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra were at Rahul’s 12, Tughlaq Lane residence Thursday morning to receive him. While they reached there shortly after 10 am, Rahul’s cavalcade rolled in minutes before noon. Some Congress leaders claimed he arrived from Bangkok on a Thai Airways flight but there was no independent confirmation.
The Congress, on its part, stuck to the “respect-his-privacy” mantra. Soon after he arrived, Rahul and Sonia drove to her 10, Janpath residence. He returned soon and stayed at home. He is likely to meet top leaders and AICC office-bearers Friday.
Congress leaders said a meeting of the Congress Working Committee would be convened soon to discuss the future course and fix the date and venue for an AICC session.
Organisational changes and amendments to the party constitution to streamline the ongoing membership drive are high on the agenda. Senior leaders claimed Rahul taking over the Congress mantle from Sonia was just a matter of time.
“He is back and I have no doubt that he will not only be taking proactive measures but also with dynamism, with commitment, provide leadership,” Congress leader Anand Sharma said.
Cartoon by E P Unny
Congress communication department head Randeep Surjewala said: ”There is great enthusiasm, elation and happiness among crores of Congressmen with the return of the Congress vice-president post his introspection…
What is important is that the leave of absence was for introspection and not vacation… to work with greater vigour. I am not entering into the speculation of physical location or place.”
On February 23, the opening day of the Budget session of Parliament, the Congress announced that Rahul had proceeded on leave. Sources had then claimed that he had left Delhi a few days earlier.
While the party had said he wanted time to “reflect on recent events and the future course of the party”, sources had said he was upset about not getting a “free hand” to unveil radical reforms and drastic changes.
His disappearance pushed the embattled Congress on the backfoot again and led to rumblings in the party.
Many leaders, in private conversations, disapproved his decision to vanish from the political scene instead of leading the charge against the government in Parliament, especially on the land acquisition bill. Others said the mystery over his location, the duration of his leave and continuing media speculation had sent a wrong and negative message which could have been avoided.
Rahul is returning to the country at a time when there is an unexpected, unprecedented venting of anguish over the issue of leadership change in the Congress.
Several senior leaders have openly questioned his fitness to lead the party at a time when it is at its lowest. A section of the top leadership feels Sonia should continue to lead the party as she has wide acceptability within the Congress and commands the respect of fellow opposition leaders.
Ever since it was ousted from office, the Congress has been coordinating with other opposition parties in Parliament to keep the pressure on the BJP-led government.
Senior leaders like Digvijaya Singh and Kamal Nath have openly suggested that Rahul be handed over reins of the Congress and that Sonia take over the role of a mentor. Many have disagreed. Former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh suggested that Sonia continue as the Congress president. “You cannot just make a generational change with a knife and cut them through. You have to gain experience by individually meeting people across the country and maintain people-to-people contact,” he had said.
“It is a personality-based election now. Mrs Gandhi is ‘the leader’ of the Congress and after we have come down to such levels, only under the leadership of a leader like her can the party move upward. I think she has the capacity to lead the party up from here. Let Rahul be number 2 and play that role to eventually take over the party,” Singh had said.
Former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit too subtly made it known that Rahul cannot be a unifier and argued Sonia should continue at the helm.
Returning to active politics against this backdrop, Rahul has to address many serious organisational and political issues. His first public appearance could be a meeting with farmers on Friday, followed by a farmers’ rally at the Ramlila Ground in Delhi Sunday.