By disappearing during the widespread popular protests in Delhi against the gang-rape and death of a 23-year-old paramedical student, Rahul Gandhi hasn't done his prime ministerial chances any good.
The upheaval posed a major challenge to the government and the party, forcing them to appoint a committee to stiffen the penal provisions on rape, and another to probe the lapses into the police response to the barbaric incident. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi also broke with protocol to go to the airport to receive the girl's body when it was flown in from Singapore.
But, even as the country was exercised not only over the brutal incident but also over the rising cases of violence against women, the heir apparent, who has been widely touted as the person to replace Manmohan Singh in 2014, was nowhere to be seen. He only issued a brief message of condolence from behind the scenes before falling silent even as the turmoil continued with the tragic incident being discussed night after night on television and the ruling party fending off the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) demand for a special session of parliament.
Rahul's absence was felt all the more because it was the younger generation which played a leading role in expressing outrage over the tragedy and the seemingly tardy official and political response as well as the earlier callousness of the establishment towards the deteriorating social scene.
As boys and girls, usually in their mid-twenties, cried "we want justice" and held candlelight vigils braving the intense cold, it was felt that the young among the Congress politicians would have been better placed to reach out to the protesters unlike the 80-year-old prime minister, whose somewhat wooden television address was marred by a faux pas at the end when he asked the camera persons whether everything went off well - "theek hai?" he asked.
What Rahul's absence showed at a time when the entire central vista of the national capital was sealed to keep out the protesters was his lack of interest in playing a key role in politics and administration. A few months ago, a union minister had ruefully said that the young general secretary had been playing only a few "cameo roles" instead of being more proactive. But, this time, he did not enter the stage at all.
When Rahul had earlier failed to respond to the prime minister's call to join the union cabinet, it was suspected that he did not want to be a minister among ministers when he was not only seen as a natural successor to Manmohan Singh but had even said in 2007 that he could have become prime minister himself if he had "wanted to". But, now, it appears that Rahul has lost interest even in his chosen profession.
There may be two reasons for such indifference. One is that having risen to a No.2 position in the party by virtue of his lineage and, therefore, without having to strike for it, his political instincts have been dulled. The other is that he may have been disheartened by some of the failures in his political forays, notably in Uttar Pradesh, and earlier in Bihar, and more recently in Gujarat, which shows that he lacks the Nehru-Gandhi family's match-winning charisma.
There may be a third reason, which is that Rahul is not a political animal. Politics is not his natural arena, which explains why he does not attend parliament regularly. He has been pushed into the field by his mother for the sake of continuing the family's traditional occupation. But he remains a debutant who shows no signs of becoming a mature player. As much is evident from his desultory efforts to carve out a path of his own, but with no clear idea of what he wants to achieve.
Hence his exercises in slumming, as it were, when he spent a night or two in Dalit homes with a bottle of mineral water and then lost interest in whatever he had in mind. Or his endeavours to democratize the party by favouring internal elections, which can seem strange for someone who is the prime beneficiary of a feudal culture to try to do.
The fact that he hasn't spelt out his political outlook with regard to, say, the economic reforms may not be due only to Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi not always being on the same page on the subject. Instead, his silence can be attributed to his being basically a dilettante who hasn't cared to formulate his views.
He did support the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008 and foreign investment in the retail sector recently. But these were one-off interventions instead of being part of a comprehensive world-view. A prospective prime minister cannot be a part-timer who is heard and seen occasionally even if his party is cheering him on. He may still make it to the top, but the rest of the country will look upon his ascent with scepticism in the wake of his latest disappearing act.
(05-01-2013-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)