Damned if you do, damned if you don't: as someone who has long advocated in these columns the need for you to speak up, I should be endorsing your parachute 'press conference' that has thrown the political class into a tizzy. Sadly, this is one occasion when a quiet nudge might have been a preferable option to noisy grandstanding.
Let me say at the outset, like you, most right thinking Indians believe that the ordinance that would provide a potential reprieve for convicted politicians was 'absolute nonsense'. In fact, we said so on air the very day the Union Cabinet hurriedly chose to push through the ordinance. Sadly, at the time, every Congress spokesperson on prime time television chose to vigorously defend the government move. Whether out of loyalty or naiveté, there appeared to be a yawning gap between party and government, which was cruelly exposed in the ordinance fiasco.
Which brings me to a central question: who is the Congress today? Is it not the core group, which meets every week under the stewardship of the Congress president? Is it not true that the ordinance was given a green signal at a meeting attended by the entire Congress top brass, including your mother Sonia Gandhi? Either you were not aware of this meeting, or, if you were, then you chose not to intervene till matters reached a stage where a public retreat was the only way out to save face.
In recent months, there has been much talk of a generational divide within the Congress: of an 'older' Congress, which is resistant to change and would like to protect old 'loyal' allies like Lalu Prasad, while a 'younger' Congress, led by you, wants to break free from the shackles of the past. Is it possible that in this battle between the old order and the new, you forgot that collateral damage was being caused to your own government and prime minister, Manmohan Singh?
Which brings me to the second central question: has Manmohan Singh, with his dignified but timid leadership outlived his utility for the brash and restless new Congress? You have said on more than one occasion that you have enormous respect for the prime minister. Last week's public intervention though has left me wondering if being openly contemptuous of a decision taken by the Cabinet headed by Manmohan Singh sends out just the opposite message. Since you are fond of corporate analogies, let me ask: could any chairman of a company openly castigate his CEO in front of the staff and shareholders without undermining his authority? You have to look no further in this context than your mother. Not once in the last nine years has Soniaji taken a false step publicly that could be interpreted as marginalising the prime minister.
Maybe, you are less willing to compromise, are more impatient with the status quo. I would appreciate that uncompromising spirit as long as you were consistent about it. For example, after making an impassioned, if scripted speech on the Lokpal in Parliament, I have never heard you speak out on the need for a stronger anti-corruption legislation. Nor have you spoken up when senior UPA ministers have been confronted with corruption charges. Frankly, the only party that has the moral right to take a stand on corruption at the moment is the Aam Aadmi party, which was created out of the womb of the Lokpal movement. The BJP's hypocrisy has been exposed by its conflicting stands on the ordinance inside and outside Parliament and by the fact that a convicted minister continues to serve in the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat.
Which brings me to a third, and critical question: do you really want to take on the BJP in a no holds barred political fight or are you more interested in seeking long-term systemic change that goes beyond just the 2014 elections? In the last few days, I have heard a strange buzz in the capital's power corridors: that Rahul Gandhi is fighting to lose the next election because he knows that only a comprehensive defeat will give him an opportunity to transform the Congress in his own image. It is almost as if only a double-digit tally in the next elections will convince Congressmen to shed the sloth and decay that now afflicts the grand old party.
It's a rather delicious conspiracy theory that is strengthened by your remarks at the Congress' Jaipur convention in January. At that meeting, you had revealed that "my mother came to my room and cried because she understands power is poison". To a party for whom power is oxygen, that was perhaps an incongruous statement to make. That the beneficiaries of that very power system applauded you reveals both their duplicity and sycophancy where Congressmen will neither introspect nor question their high command any longer.
Which brings me to my final question: do you really want to lead this party in its present form? You have so far studiously rejected any ministerial lure, or attempt to project you as a prime ministerial candidate. Some have seen in this reluctance an unwillingness to get into the rough and tumble of a political akhara. Politics, especially electoral politics, in this country is increasingly about 'saam, dam, dand, bhed', a Chanakya-like high stakes sport which can be bloody and immoral. It appears that you wish to stand above it all. Hence, perhaps your 'spontaneous', if ill-timed outburst at an ordinance which you clearly saw to be regressive. But can you with the same firmness guarantee that your party will make integrity and not electability the basis for choosing candidates and allies in the future?
Maybe, you are a dreamer, living in an idyllic world which is neatly divided into the good, bad and the ugly. Sadly, contemporary Indian politics is then the wrong place to be.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal