The desperation to build up Rahul is beginning to show, even if it means undermining PM and downgrading Sonia

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s open censure of the UPA government — describing the clearing of a controversial ordinance by the Cabinet as “wrong” — saw party functionaries scrambling to do damage control, even as some ministers spoke or tweeted, endorsing their young leader and, at the same time, insisting that his criticism had not undermined the position of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, now on a bilateral visit to the United States.

If External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told a TV channel that the Prime Minister had not been undermined by Mr. Gandhi’s statement and that if the party had a view, the Cabinet could re-consider the ordinance, MoS for Human Resource Development Shashi Tharoor tweeted: “Rahul Gandhi speaking has given us a right to present our private opinion” and “… now that my party VP has broken ranks, I’m delighted. I’d declined numerous invitations to defend the Ordinance.”

By the end of the day, Congress president Sonia Gandhi had to step in: in a telephone conversation with the Prime Minister, she assured him that there had been no intention to undermine his position.

But by then much of the damage had been done. Earlier in the day, a senior party functionary even said he saw nothing wrong in Mr. Gandhi waking up to the ills of the ordinance weeks after the Bill on which it was based had been introduced in the Rajya Sabha: “Rahulji is only responding to the sentiments of the public and party workers,” he said, stressing, “The issue is evolving; the situation is evolving.” Pressed on how Mr. Gandhi could have embarrassed the Prime Minister, who is on a foreign visit, the spin put on was: “What if the President had given his assent to the ordinance? The Prime Minister won’t be back for a few days. Rahulji wanted to stop it.”

Later, of course, it transpired Mr. Gandhi had sent an email to the Prime Minister, citing his objections to the ordinance.

Indeed, one account in the party has it that once it was realised that President Pranab Mukherjee had serious reservations about the ordinance — and might send it back — then a plan needed to be devised to ensure that the party — aka Rahul Gandhi — got the credit for it. In UPA-I, days after the then Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh told journalists that the decision to extend the MGNREGS to the entire country had been taken, Mr. Gandhi led a party delegation to the Prime Minister, asking him to ensure that the scheme covered all of India.

On Friday, a senior leader even said the real reason why the UPA government, in the monsoon session, sent the RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2013 that sought to keep political parties out of the purview of the RTI Act — after the Central Information Commission had ruled that they are within the ambit — to a Standing Committee rather than quickly push it through was Mr. Gandhi had insisted on it. But this writer recalls that during the session, the government’s parliamentary managers said it was Ms. Gandhi who had directed her party colleagues to send the Bill to a Standing Committee, once she sensed that it was an unpopular move.

Clearly, the desperation to build up Mr. Gandhi is beginning to show, even if it means undermining the Prime Minister and downgrading Ms. Gandhi, who is still party president.

The media, a senior leader said, “is always complaining that Rahul never asserts himself, he does not speak out on issues. Now that he has done so, you are criticising him. He now occupies the high moral ground: it is the right decision in the long term.”

Mr. Gandhi’s effort to distance himself from a decision that party colleagues and workers are finding it hard to defend might have worked but for the fact that he is number two in the party, the heir apparent, and as party sources said, his mother and party president Sonia Gandhi was on board before the Cabinet approved the ordinance.

Throughout Friday, confusion reigned over what stand the party should take on the Prime Minister, with some leaders even saying it did not matter that Dr. Singh had been embarrassed by the party vice-president’s statement.

“PM did not matter”

A senior leader even told The Hindu that the Prime Minister “did not matter”: with the Congress facing an uphill task in the coming elections, many would like to attribute the fall in the party’s fortunes to Dr. Singh’s “uninspiring leadership” of the government, deflecting attention from the organisational shortcomings in the Congress.

Sanjaya Baru’s take

It was left to Sanjaya Baru, the Prime Minister’s former media adviser, to lash out at Mr. Gandhi on television and write on his Facebook page, “Enough is Enough! How long will he take this 'nonsense'?! PM should cancel all engagements after his meeting with Obama, cancel NY trip, return home, call for snap polls, and quit. Service of the Country is more important than of any party or family.” There was no corresponding anger articulated on Friday by party members.

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