A few days ago, the India Today magazine predicted a revival of sorts for Rahul Gandhi, arguing that he was emerging as a challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Dissing the argument, somebody made an interesting remark. "Nobody can dislodge Modi till two factors do not change: oil prices and Rahul Gandhi."
On Wednesday, when Gandhi disappeared from Parliament, squeaking a meek apology when Smriti Irani was roaring on the floor, he proved his critics right.
In running away from a battle that he had himself started, Gandhi proved that whatever hidden virtues he may have, leading from the front and looking the enemy in the eye, is not one of them.
"I will speak, but they will not let me speak. Because they are scared of what I will say," Gandhi boasted before the debate began. In the end, by not getting up to speak, he brought upon himself the indictment of cowardice.
This was, ultimately, Gandhi's battle. With his visits to Hyderabad and principled support to the JNU students, Gandhi had earned a showdown in Parliament with the government. And, for a change, he had a lot of people rooting for the cause he was championing. A sharp, impassioned yet logical take down of the government could have raised his stature, turned him into the voice of the liberal, secular nationalism. Alas, he stabbed himself in the back with both hands.
In the end, he met the deserved fate of the man who dares his rivals to a fight and then fails to turn up at the appointed time. Fingers were pointed at his allegiance, barbs were thrown at his politics over a "dead child" and there were nasty slurs about him not being a worthy claimant to the legacy of his great grandfather and grandmother.
And Smriti Irani got away with a mix of theatrics and half-truths packaged as rousing oratory. With the opposition MIA, the Lok Sabha became her stage, a set straight out of the soap that gave her the initial fame. With flaring nostrils, flailing arms, pointed fingers, lips curled at ends in a mix of derision and triumphalism, timely pauses and sobs, the HRD minister hectored the Congress from her bully pulpit.
But, except for a TRS member, there was nobody to counter her performance. Nobody to challenge the version that Rohith Vemula died because there was no "doctor was allowed to examine him", that the "child" did not die because her colleague Bandaru Dattatreya's letter led to his suspension and harassment, that the sedition case against Kanhaiya Kumar is based on statements from the security staff and interim reports of the varsity (the police claim TV footage forms the basis) and her selective reading of text books from eras bygone. Nobody to ask her, where was the HRD minister all these months when campus after campus was in turmoil? (Some say she was busy writing her Parliament script). Nobody to counter the sword of the Jhansi ki rani (for her fans) and jhanson (guiles) ki rani (for her critics) as it flailed about in every direction.
Gandhi, it seems, appears to have a mistaken conception that bite-and-run is the defining trait of a politician. He appears to believe that he will become the country's Prime Minister just by making guest appearances at fightbacks initiated by students and the civil society, delivering banal and vacuous lines of support and then watching from the distance as the battle escalates.
No, Rahul, we do not have a polite word for those who want to join the feast when someone else has done the fighting and the killing.
For the Congress, the abject surrender in Parliament, should be yet another call for rethinking its future under Gandhi. He has failed to define what his party stands for, it is boiling in its own stew of confusion because of Gandhi's inability to articulate the party's stand on crucial issues. And, while the India Today magazine charitably called him a challenger to Modi, the Congress leader is at the moment being humbled by the C-team of the BJP.
When he is mocked by the likes of Anurag Thakur, silenced by a novice like Irani, what chance does he have of first graduating to the level of the B-team of the Gadkaris and the Naidus, then getting past Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh and finally standing in front of the man who aims to dislodge? At the rate he is going, Priyanka Gandhi's children have a better theoretical possibility.
The Congress will have to look for a better solution in the interim.