The Indian National Congress Party's announcement on January 17 that Rahul Gandhi would not be named as the party's prime ministerial candidate in upcoming elections was more than a little surprising. Rather than put thorny issues to rest, the announcement raises important questions about Gandhi and the future of the Congress Party.
The surprise is not that party leaders want to shield Gandhi from an expected electoral loss, the most common interpretation among India watchers. Nor is it that the party simultaneously made clear that Gandhi would take the job of prime minister if it somehow pulls off an electoral upset. Indeed, it would be unwise to think that the party would not tap its "natural leader" if given the opportunity. Rather, the surprise springs from the party's clumsy handling of the whole affair, only a few months in advance of the elections.
The initial surprise was why this announcement was made at all. If the goal was to shield Gandhi from defeat, it is hard to see how this helps. Even without being formally named the candidate, by leading the campaign and saying he would accept the top responsibility, Gandhi effectively owns this campaign. Whether he likes it or not, a loss by the Congress Party will be laid at his doorstep.
If Congress really wanted to shield Gandhi, a more prudent course would have been to keep speculation about Gandhi being the prime ministerial candidate from reaching such a fever pitch. This announcement unfortunately does the opposite. It has effectively hand-cuffed Gandhi by preventing him from going head-to-head with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Narendra Modi - a contest that Gandhi could plausibly win, given Modi's controversial background, stemming from his government's alleged role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat. With its actions, Congress has now handicapped the very campaign that it has asked him to lead. Is this what Congress wanted? To dig itself into a bigger hole than it was already in?
The next surprise was the fractured messaging that accompanied the party's announcement. According to a Congress spokesperson, all members of the Working Committee, the executive committee that often makes important party decisions, wanted to name Gandhi as the party's PM candidate, but the "Congress president" Sonia Gandhi intervened. In separate public remarks, however, Sonia Gandhi said, "we took a decision on Rahul" [emphasis added].
Congress has historically experienced friction between the ruling family and non-Gandhi leaders, but for the party to reveal that Sonia basically overruled a unanimous decision of the Working Committee is unprecedented. Given an extraordinary chance to cement her son's leadership in the party, Sonia appears to have gone another way, all while trying to paper over her differences with the leadership on this issue. Does she think Rahul unprepared for the rough-and-tumble of national politics? Does she believe that one electoral defeat will ruin his chances forever? What is she trying to hide by shielding him from the scrutiny that accompanies a national candidacy?
An even bigger surprise is the mindset of the Congress Party that the announcement betrayed. Some say that Congress is only recognizing reality by trying to shield Gandhi from defeat. But while the chances for Congress appear quite grim at the moment, predictions are not always correct in Indian politics, and things can change overnight. In 2004, the BJP seemed to be cruising to re-election, only to be ousted by the rural population when the votes were counted.
With this announcement, however, Congress is giving the distinct impression that it has already conceded the elections. This could turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: If the party itself doesn't believe it can win, then no one else will either. Is this the image that Congress wishes to portray? Is it already looking past 2014 to 2019? Is Gandhi's future a greater concern than the party's own ability to win the current election?
Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is what the announcement reveals about Gandhi himself. His earlier comments about accepting "whatever responsibility" the party gives him, comments reiterated during his first-ever TV interview on January 27, do not seem like those of a bonafide leader who will fight to a victory for the good of his country. To say the least, the passive nature of his remarks does not inspire confidence.
By effectively confirming that Gandhi himself had no role in the decision, Congress has played right into this sentiment - unwittingly solidifying the long-held belief that Gandhi is a hesitant leader who comes to the premiership reluctantly. When asked directly about this in his interview, Gandhi produced a rambling response about India's broken political system.
Where is the Gandhi who says loud and clear, "I want to be prime minister so I can implement my vision for India"? Where is the Gandhi who strives to lead his party? And where is the Gandhi who takes control of decisions about his own future?
These questions and issues raised by Congress's announcement do not have simple answers, and many are at odds with traditional party politics in India. But they all contain a common undercurrent - that of the lack of strong leadership.
Throughout the party's last decade in power, save a brief period in 2007-2008, the question of leadership has continually dogged Congress. Particularly in the second term, as scandals mounted and festered, it became clear that the Indian people craved strong leadership above all else.
Moving forward to the elections, Congress will need to determine if it can provide bold leadership for the country. More importantly, the Indian public will need to determine if this recent display is what counts as leadership in the Congress Party these days. If so, then Congress's current predicament is perhaps not so surprising after all.
Anish Goel is a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation. He previously served in the White House's National Security Council as senior director for South Asia.