Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has gone on a sabbatical "for a few weeks" following a string of electoral losses, fuelling speculation about his future plan as well of a long-awaited change in the party to revive its fortunes.
Rahul has led Congress to a series of electoral defeats since it was handed its worst drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections last year at the hands of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A member of Lok Sabha from Amethi, Rahul gave a miss to Parliament which commenced its budget session on Monday with President Pranab Mukherjee's address to a joint sitting of both the Houses.
Party sources said he has "requested Congress president Sonia Gandhi for some time to reflect on recent events and future course of the party".
He has been "granted leave of absence for a few weeks after which he will return and resume his active participation in the affairs of the Congress party", they said.
He believes that the direction that the party adopts at the upcoming AICC session will be of crucial importance for its future and he wishes to prepare for it, the sources added.
"Rahul Gandhi has been granted leave of absence for 'aap chintan, aap manthan' (introspection)," a party leader said.
"He will not be in Delhi until the end of this week to attend the presentation of the budget," he said.
However, the entire duration of absence is not known, another source added.
Asked about the sabbatical given to Rahul, Congress president Sonia Gandhi said he has been "given a few weeks. He needs some time."
"Well, the reason is what you have been told," she said in reply to a question whether he has been given time to reflect on recent events and future course of the party as has been told to the media.
As there was no official word on what Rahul plans to do or where he was at the moment as speculation raged whether it could be a precursor to his keeping away from politics.
Congress leaders expressed hope that a break would do him good and that they would continue to look for guidance from Sonia and Rahul.
Party sources said Rahul believes that the direction that the party adopts at the upcoming AICC session will be of crucial importance for its future and he wishes to prepare for it.
Congress had had a disastrous year starting with the rout in the Lok Sabha elections last May which continued in the assembly elections in various states including Delhi recently.
The debacle in Delhi, where Congress failed to get even one seat in the 70-member House, was all the more humiliating as the party had ruled the state for 15 years till December 2013.
The AICC session is expected in early April and media reports have suggested that Rahul could be made the party chief on that occasion.
Congress leader Sandeep Dikshit said he did not think Rahul going on leave is related to Delhi elections.
"I suppose it's a time to reflect and think. I think Mr Gandhi must be wanting time for that. I feel glad he has applied and officially told people that he would not be available for a while."
Dikshit said Rahul must be given that space as he genuinely wants to think and reflect on issues.
Leader of Congress in Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge and another leader Veerappa Moily said party would continue to function as an effective and constructive opposition under the guidance of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.
Another party MP Ashwini Kumar said whatever the BJP's interpretation, it's a plain and simple case of a member seeking leave as per procedures of the House to be absent for a while.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ally Shiv Sena did not miss the chance to take jibes at Rahul and Congress revelling in the party's discomfiture.
Reacting to the development, Union minister and BJP leader Prakash Javadekar said, "If somebody wants to go on leave, he can go. But the people of the country have sent Congress on a long leave. This is definite."
Minister of state for parliamentary affairs Rajiv Pratap Rudy said it shows his seriousness at a time the Budget session of Parliament was beginning and raises questions over his political inclination.
Without taking Gandhi's name, BJP's youth wing chief and MP Anurag Thakur said Congress has been reduced to 44 seats in Lok Sabha due to the absence of its leaders in Parliament in the last one decade.
"They were missing in the last two Lok Sabhas as well. And this is why the Congress has come to 44 seats in Lok Sabha," he told reporters when asked about Rahul's absence.
Thakur said that though it is for the Congress to decide on what it wants to do, he feels that it would have been better if all participated in the discussions in the two Houses of the Parliament.
Union Minister Kalraj Mishra also said that leaders from all parties should be present at the start of Budget session.
He, however, added that there could have been some compulsion because of which Gandhi could not come.
Shiv Sena's Sanjay Raut took a dig at Rahul, saying just when the issue of land acquisition has come to the fore in Parliament, he has gone to retrieve the "lost land" of the Congress party.
Congress ally Nationalist Congress Party also took a jibe with its leader Praful Patel and said that all, especially leaders, should take Parliament very seriously to voice the needs of the people.
(With PTI inputs)