Where’s Rahul? BJP asks a familiar question, Congress fears a familiar reply — from an evening in Kathmandu

As the Congress prepares for its three-day “chintan shivir” in Udaipur beginning May 13, the video, purportedly from the wedding of Rahul’s “friend,” has forced the party to scramble for damage control.

Many of his party colleagues have long been worried about the image of Rahul as the “reluctant and absentee” leader disinterested in humdrum political work — bread and butter for leaders of a lesser league. The cherry topping, for his critics: his foreign trips are usually cloaked in secrecy.

This particular trip started on April 17- 18, after Rahul attended a meeting with Prashant Kishor and a band of senior leaders on April 16, along with Congress president Sonia Gandhi. This was a little over a month after the Congress lost yet another state in its kitty (Punjab) and failed in other Assembly elections it had hopes in (Manipur, Goa). At the meeting, Kishor reportedly made a detailed presentation on a revival roadmap.

Before that was even taken up, Rahul was off. Meanwhile, Kishor and the Congress leadership kept up their talks over the next few days – in full public glare. After a week of people being photographed arriving at or leaving 10 Janpath, on April 26 came the Congress announcement that Kishor had declined to be part of a group with a “defined responsibility” that Sonia had formed.

The latest trip followed four months after Rahul last skipped town — in December 2021. The Congress was hard-pressed to explain his absence then as it came just as the party announced that Rahul would kick off its campaign for the Punjab Assembly elections, with a rally on January 3. The rally had to be postponed; the Congress went on to be trounced in Punjab.

In February 2020, Rahul was abroad when Congress took out a peace march after the Northeast Delhi riots. He was abroad with Sonia for her annual medical check-up during the Monsoon Session of Parliament the same year, during which the three contentious farm Bills were passed.

In December 2020, he left the country just before the party’s foundation day when senior leader AK Antony had to hoist the party flag on December 28.

Neither was Rahul present in the country in December 2019 during protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra led a party dharna at India Gate in solidarity with the Jamia Millia Islamia students, after police entered campus chasing the protesters.

Congress leaders, led by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, held a sit-in at the India Gate in a show of solidarity with the protesting students from Jamia. (Express photo by Amit Mehra)

At the Assembly elections in Jharkhand around the same time, Priyanka had to step in and address a rally with JMM chief Hemant Soren. Rahul was then on an official visit to Seoul with Indian Overseas Congress head Sam Pitroda. The JMM won; the Congress is part of the government.

When Rahul headed out before that – in October 2019 – it was not a great time for the Congress either, as it fell right in the middle of the Assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra (both states where the party fancied its chances). The talk then was that Rahul was not happy about his recruitmentees in Haryana and Maharashtra being sidelined. Incidentally, while Congress gave the BJP a tough challenge in Haryana, in Maharashtra, it managed to outsmart the BJP to come to power.

None of these trips, of course, come close to the February 2015 one, when Rahul had taken a “sabbatical”, soon after the Delhi Assembly loss, on top of other defeats. That particular trip had stretched for 57 days, with its where and why still unknown.

While the BJP can’t have enough of the foreign trips of the man they often deride as “shahzada (prince)”, other, friendlier parties too have expressed frustration at what they see as Rahul’s self-goals in an arena where the battle is also about optics.

In December last year, while arguing that the UPA that once coalesced around the Congress no longer existedTrinamool Congress chief and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee said: “You can’t be abroad most of the time.”

Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. (Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

The BJP has used government data too, to rub in the fact of a roaming Rahul. In November 2019, while replying to a debate on the Special Protection Group (Amendment) Bill, Union Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament that Rahul had traveled 1,892 times in India and 247 times abroad between 2015 and 2019 without informing the SPG.

On Tuesday, Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP’s information and technology department, first set off buzz about the latest trip, putting out a video on Twitter of Rahul at a nightclub. “Rahul Gandhi was at a nightclub when Mumbai was under seize”. He is at a nightclub at a time when his party is exploding. He is consistent,” Malviya tweeted.

Asked about this, the Congress communication department head Randeep Surjewala said: “Rahul Gandhi has not gone as an uninvited guest like Prime Minister Modi went to Pakistan to celebrate the birthday and cut cakes for the then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif. Rahul Gandhi has gone to a friendly country Nepal to participate in a private marriage function of a friend. By chance, the friend also happens to be a journalist. So I think they are also abusing your fraternity.

“Last when I checked, having a family in this country, having friends in this country, attending a marriage, engagement ceremonies is a matter of our culture and civilization. It has still not become a crime in this country to be married, to be friends with someone, or to attend their marriage celebration. Maybe after today, Prime Minister Modi and the BJP may decide that it is illegal to attend a marriage. They may say it is a crime to have friends or participate in family functions. But do let me know so that we all change our status, habits and civilized practices of attending the marriage of friends as also family,” he added.

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