|Rahul Gandhi speaks at the Press Club of India on Friday. (PTI)
Was Rahul’s outburst orchestrated?
The way he did it does not seem to be choreographed. But there is little doubt that the Congress jumped to seize the opening provided by him — the alacrity suggesting that the party was not entirely in the dark. On Friday, Maken, who was indeed toeing the then party line of defending the ordinance, seemed to have been taken aback by Rahul’s language. But Maken did not miss a beat to declare that “what Rahulji said is the party line”. Even by the usual standards of complete devotion of Congress leaders to the family, the statement was sweeping for a spokesperson to make without some sort of an inkling, especially since the matter was cleared by the core group as well as the cabinet and was pending before the President. The silence the following day among many leaders who were still figuring out which way the wind was blowing underscored the significance of Maken’s assertion
Does it mean Sonia was also aware of Rahul’s plan?
All information available in the public domain — and Sonia’s subsequent praise of Singh — reflects Sonia’s eagerness to dispel the discomfiture of the Prime Minister. There is nothing to suggest yet that Sonia anticipated Rahul’s action in the way it unfolded. There is also nothing to suggest that Rahul wanted to undermine the Prime Minister’s authority. Rahul seemed to have firmed up his mind after the public outcry (at least in the media) against the ordinance and after running into reactions he heard when he travelled out of Delhi soon after the measure was cleared by the cabinet. Rahul normally does not take too much interest in government decisions. On this issue, he may have expressed his discomfiture (perhaps only to his mother and not in any formal inner-party forum) and was told that the measure may not be ideal but was part of the compromise essential in politics. The public outcry must have convinced him that attacking the ordinance was necessary from both the “moral” and the “pragmatic” perspectives. In that context, the Press Club was a more level-playing field than a leak or an exclusive chat. There is no evidence yet to suggest that he thought through the ramifications of saying what he did when the Prime Minister was abroad or meant it as a slight to Singh. More so because he probably knew that the Prime Minister was not too keen on the ordinance either. But, on the political front, Sonia also went with the view articulated by Rahul even though she headed the core group that cleared the ordinance before the cabinet took it up. This point was mentioned by the Prime Minister, too, on Tuesday. The way things have worked out now, it will appear that Sonia was not against the content of Rahul’s message but she has not condoned his medium and mode
Then why did Sonia clear the ordinance?
The Opposition has alleged that the ordinance was hastily drafted to save Lalu Prasad. This gained some traction because Sonia is perceived to share a good rapport with Lalu Prasad who has stood by the Congress through thick and thin on the secular plank even when the rest of the Congress did not reciprocate the gesture. With Narendra Modi emerging as a potent threat, Sonia may have not been averse to the ordinance initially
Then why the rethink?
The situation changed dramatically when the BJP, which supported the idea of getting around the Supreme Court’s order for immediate disqualification of convicted lawmakers, opposed the ordinance, probably reading the pulse of a section of the urban voters. The decisive moment came when President Pranab Mukherjee held consultations with two ministers. The government and the Congress might have picked up signals that suggested the ordinance could be sent back if the President was not convinced of the need for one. That would have been political catastrophe. Against that backdrop, the best possible way out was to create the opportunity from within to backtrack. In the process, if the heir apparent earned a few brownie points, it would have been treated as a bonus. The Congress would not have publicly changed its line without getting feedback that the ordinance had run into reservations at Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Congress would have cut an even sorrier figure had the President, who is not answerable to the vice-president of a political party, signed the ordinance soon after Rahul denounced it in public
Where did the script go awry?
Two disclaimers: one, there is no evidence yet that there was a script. Two, if you speak to Congress loyalists, they do not concede that anything is amiss; they claim “positive” feedback to Rahul from the youths. The Congress’s reluctance to speak on Rahul’s language and the Prime Minister’s own comments leave little doubt that most were stunned. The whiff of stagecraft is hanging heavy over the entire episode because Rahul rarely steps out of the cocoon that is somewhat indispensable because of tragic circumstances surrounding his family but has become a liability in public life. Sonia has transcended similar constraints through her persona and by pulling the Congress out of a rut and leading it to two unexpected electoral triumphs. But Rahul, who comes across as earnest but aloof, has yet to blood himself. Since his style of functioning reinforces a perception that he zealously guards his privacy, outbursts that run contrary to the stereotype find resonance in choreography theories.