Rahul Gandhi returns from his nearly two month-long leave of absence to a question: Now can he make his presence the story? That curiosity has acquired a new urgency for India’s main opposition party, for several reasons. While he was away, the debate on the amendments to the Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, has flared and sharpened. The NDA government has repromulgated the ordinance but its challenge of pushing the modified legislation through Parliament, which reopens in a few days, remains daunting. The Congress has planned a major rally on the issue, but it may find that it is being crowded out and overtaken by others in its attempts to make land acquisition a centrepiece for a larger mobilisation built around issues of rural disquiet and distress.
While Rahul was away, the churning in the opposition space has also taken some eye-catching turns. Most recently, the CPM began its 21st party congress with a display of striking candour and forthrightness in appraising its own failures. At Visakhapatnam, the party is looking crucial political and organisational questions in the eye — it is asking itself whether the social composition of its leadership in the higher echelons is skewed against the disprivileged castes, if it should enter into alliances with “secular” regional parties at the national level or concentrate on its independent growth, why it is failing to attract the young and whether it is being flexible enough in responding to changing political circumstances. At the same time, six parties of the erstwhile Janata Parivar have announced their decision to unite under a common chief, symbol and name, all the better to fight the BJP. This attempt follows the experiment last year in Bihar which saw the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad-Congress combine put up a relatively good showing in state by-elections against a Modi-led BJP. Rahul, on the other hand, comes back to a Congress which is yet to reflect with any degree of seriousness on the shortcomings and mistakes that have reduced it to its paltry Lok Sabha tally of 44, or on the dilemmas of the future.
Now that he is back, the Congress needs to find clarity on Rahul’s role in the organisation. That could be the first step towards moving on from its standstill. Whether and in what manner it can then step up to its role as the leading opposition party will determine the Congress’s place and position in a polity that is remaking itself.