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B for Bali, needn’t be ballot
- Rahul returns but dinner pot keeps simmering

New Delhi, May 15: Bangkok, Bali or London, asked the wagging tongues. Was it an escape from responsibility, wondered some, or just a much-needed holiday?

Rahul Gandhi returned to New Delhi early this evening after a four-day absence that triggered speculation about his whereabouts and criticism of his skipping the farewell dinner Sonia Gandhi hosted for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at 10 Janpath last night.

Yesterday, embarrassed and somewhat clueless Congress leaders had said that Rahul had missed the dinner because he was out of town. Hours after the Congress vice-president had returned home today, they still had no explanation for his vacation.

Rahul’s foreign jaunts have always been shrouded in mystery. In the 10 years he has been in politics, his once-in-two-months travels abroad have been a subject of gossip and rumour.

London, where Rahul worked with global consultancy firm Monitor, is considered his favourite destination along with Madrid, Dubai and Bangkok.

Congress sources said that in recent years, Rahul has rarely celebrated his birthday (June 19) in India. And each time a Lok Sabha session has ended, the Amethi MP has travelled overseas.

“This is his way of de-stressing. Having lived abroad most of his youth (from 1989 till 2003), he has friends spread across Europe, America, East and West Asia,” a source said.

“He loves go-karting, power biking, shooting, diving and a range of adventure sports. Often, security considerations do not allow him to unwind here.”

It’s “a pity that in this time and age, Rahul’s brief foreign travels have come under such scrutiny”, the source said.

Several Union ministers and Congress officials said they could not understand why the media, social networking sites and the Opposition had joined forces to target Rahul on matters relating to his private life.

Speaking off the record, they asked whether Rahul didn’t deserve a break after the gruelling campaign.

Before his trip, Rahul had called on Manmohan Singh on May 10 to take leave and explain he would be forced to miss Wednesday night’s farewell dinner, a minister said. “If the guest (Singh) accepted his plea, what’s all the fuss about?” the minister asked.

Some Congress old-timers felt that the barrage of criticism was a prelude to the shape of things to come once the party lost power. After the 1977 defeat, Indira Gandhi and son Sanjay had tasted something similar.

When the counting for the 1977 Lok Sabha polls was going on at Delhi’s Tees Hazari Courts, jubilant Janata Party and Jan Sangh workers had coined a mocking slogan: “Congressi dikhao, sau rupiya pao (Show us a Congress member and win Rs 100).”

Most party leaders chose to swallow the humiliation but the Youth Congress, fiercely loyal to Sanjay, decided to challenge the sloganeers although the trends from the counting centres showed their party trailing badly.

Haan hum hain Congressi, lao sau rupiya (Here, we are Congress members; now give us Rs 100),” they had shouted back.

After his return, Rahul today sat with sister Priyanka to prepare a speech he is likely to deliver tomorrow afternoon, sources said. Both Sonia and Rahul are to interact with the media.

If the Congress tally hits an all-time low (below the 114 seats it won in 1999), Sonia is tipped to make some kind of “dramatic” announcement.

At another level, many Congress Working Committee members are independently working on a plan to “shield” Rahul under the plea of “collective responsibility” for the party’s performance.

Rahul’s absence from Sonia’s dinner for Singh continued to invite barbs today, with BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain terming Rahul’s inability to “find time” for the event “unfortunate”.

BJP parliamentarian Tarun Vijay compared Rahul’s “insult” to Singh to Sonia’s “insult” to then Congress president Sitaram Kesri.


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