Rahul Gandhi has chosen the wrong time to go to the wrong place. His visit to the US when Narendra Modi is there means that he will receive far less attention both in America and in India about his trip. Since the spotlight will be on the prime minister, few will be interested in the activities of a person whose party regards him as the “shadow” PM, to use a term from British politics.

To complicate matters, no one is sure about Rahul’s whereabouts. His party hasn’t helped matters by first pretending that he is on a private visit and then saying that he has gone to a weekend meeting at Aspen Institute. Further confusion has been caused by the BJP’s claim that the meeting in question, Weekend with Charlie Rose, was held in July.

The Congress, therefore, is being economical with the truth, according to the BJP, about its vice-president, who has been called a “spoilt child” by a BJP spokesperson.

Rahul’s overseas trip is also being seen by his critics as a ploy by his party and its allies to keep him away from the Bihar election scene, not least because the latest surveys give the BJP an edge in the state. He has, therefore, been sent by the Congress on a “forced vacation”.

It is worth recalling that none of the two big guns of Bihar politics – chief minister Nitish Kumar and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief, Laloo Prasad Yadav – attended the Congress’s heir-apparent’s first election rally in the state. If anything, their absence, which can be interpreted as a snub, shows that Rahul is not regarded as a vote-winner.

In the meantime, the Congress has assured all and sundry that Rahul will join the poll campaign on his return from the US. But, his Houdini act has confirmed the impression that he is not a serious politician.

As a dabbler in a profession in which he seems to have little genuine interest, he probably finds it strenuous to follow a nine-to-five routine, so to say, and prefers, therefore, an occasional break, usually in a foreign country. During this period, he also disappears from sight.

As is known, his last such vanishing trick was in March-April when he went on a 57-day sabbatical to an unknown place, which was rumoured to be a Buddhist monastery in Myanmar. He has been a changed person on his return, being far more aggressive in his speeches in parliament than ever before. Apparently, he went abroad to recharge his batteries.

It is not known whether his purpose is the same this time also. But, whatever the reason, the location of his trip is as controversial as the timing, for the place where he has disappeared is the Mecca of capitalism.
Considering that Rahul has been highly critical of Modi’s industrialization plans – he dubs the PM’s “make in India” campaign as a conspiracy to take away land from farmers – it is doubtful whether his anti-capitalist views will have many takers in the US.

It will be of considerable interest, however, to political observers if he is quizzed by some enterprising newsperson about his “left of left” stance about which he boasted during an informal conversion in the central hall of parliament with fellow M.P.s and journalists. It will provide some clarity to his economic vision, which, like his mother’s, resembles the outlook of the communists at present.

But, first, someone will have to find him. A photo-op will also reveal whether he is wearing a suit because he has been mocking the Modi government for being “suit-boot ki sarkar” or a government which caters to those in Western attire, viz. the business class.

If Modi’s call to American businessmen to invest more in India bears fruit, the confrontation between his capitalism and Rahul’s, and his mother’s, “socialism” will become more pronounced.

The focus will again be on the land acquisition law since factories cannot be built in the air, as a West Bengal CPI(M) member said when the investments sought by the former chief minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, were being opposed by hardline comrades.

The confrontation between the Modi government and the Congress “socialists” may well move from parliament to the states considering that A.K. Antony, a loyal supporter of the Congress’s first family, has said that the government’s proposal to leave the matter of land acquisition to the states means allowing industrialists a back-door entry.

It goes without saying that Rahul will want to play a major role in stalling such initiatives, but only if the BJP suffers a setback in Bihar. Otherwise, if the “secular” combination of Nitish Kumar, Laloo Prasad and the Congress is defeated, then it will take time for Rahul to recapture his aggressive mood.
The delay will be prolonged if the Congress’s performance is particularly dismal.

The Congress’s decision to put off for the present Rahul’s coronation as the party president suggests there are lingering doubts in the party, and perhaps even in the mind of his doting mother, about how effective he will be in the new post. If the party stumbles at yet another electoral hurdle, the doubts will be strengthened.