Presumed Heir of Indian Party Requests Leave of Absence

NEW DELHI:  Rahul Gandhi, long expected to be the next leader of India’s beleaguered Congress Party, threw political commentators into fits of baffled speculation Monday when party officials announced that he had requested a leave of absence because he wants time to think.

Gandhi, the party’s vice president, asked the president – his mother, Sonia Gandhi – for three to four weeks off to “reflect upon recent events and the future course of the party,” said Abishek Manu Singhvi, a party spokesman.

Rahul Gandhi’s retreat comes at a crucial time for the opposition: Monday was the first day of the budget session and the beginning of a major campaign to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overhaul of land-use laws. Gandhi was scheduled to lead a party rally Wednesday.

Congress was obliterated in this month’s state elections in Delhi, not winning any of the 70 assembly seats in a state it had governed for 15 years. It was the latest in a series of bruising electoral losses, and party leaders are preparing for an April meeting where they hope to plot out a strategy for reviving the party’s fortunes. At a news conference, Singhvi said Gandhi would use the time to prepare for the meeting.

Beyond that, Congress officials did little to clarify the reasons behind Gandhi’s “sabbatical,” as some journalists were calling it.

“I have no idea,” M. Veerappa Moily, a senior leader and adviser to Sonia Gandhi, told reporters. Manish Tewari, a former minister of information and broadcasting, said in a telephone interview that he had “no clue.” Although a reporter for the news channel NDTV reached Sonia Gandhi, her comments, as reported, were similarly opaque.

“I am not going to say anything more on this,” she said, according to the channel. “We have said what needs to be said.”

The uncertainty left vast space for journalistic conjecture.

“What could Rahul Gandhi be thinking about?” Mihir S. Sharma of The Business Standard wondered in a column headlined, “Rahul Gandhi and the Art of Vacationing.”

“Is it a bit of a break before his coronation, as some think? Is it a preliminary to exiting, as some hope? Is it the consequence of a disagreement with his mother? Is it because after the South Africa win he thinks we actually have a chance on Australian pitches and wants to wake up early for India matches,” Sharma wrote, referencing the Cricket World Cup now taking place.

Most theories hinged on dynamics within Rahul Gandhi’s family, which has led the Congress Party for four generations.

Sonia Gandhi reluctantly took charge in the years after the assassination of her husband, Rajiv, in 1991, and has recently sought to step aside as the party’s face. Rahul Gandhi, 44, the heir apparent, always appeared reluctant to step into the spotlight, turning down offers of Cabinet seats and even the post of prime minister when Congress was in power. During three terms as a member of Parliament, he has spoken publicly no more than a handful of times.

Many of the party’s senior leaders privately suggest that Rahul Gandhi’s charismatic younger sister, Priyanka, 43, would be better suited to the role of party leader, but that Rahul Gandhi’s ascent is nonetheless inevitable.

Among the theories circulating Monday were that Gandhi stormed out of Delhi because his mother would not yield control of the party; because she was resisting his plan for a major reorganization in the senior ranks of Congress; that he was running off to get married; and that he was leaving politics altogether.

At times, Gandhi has made it a point to publicly express frustration with Congress’ old guard, suggesting that, if given control of the party, he would make significant changes. In 2013, he charged into a party news conference and dismissed as “complete nonsense” an initiative backed by his own party, an act that sent Congress mandarins into a flurry of damage control.

Yet the electoral losses of the past year have soured many erstwhile supporters, who seek for more vibrant leadership from regional heavyweights, like Delhi’s new chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal. Mohd Asim, a senior news editor for NDTV, wrote Monday that Gandhi’s “vanishing act” should be a signal to Congress that it is time to look beyond the Gandhi family.

“The Congress just seems like it’s sleepwalking its way into political oblivion,” Asim wrote. “The voices of dissent are getting louder, which is as it should be – except for this party which pledges undying allegiance to a dynasty, even one that delivers terrible results.”