In the recent cricket Test match between India and England at Kolkata, it was left to a tail-ender - R Ashwin - to avert the unedifying prospect of an innings defeat for India with a heroic, even if futile, batting performance. For all his primary distinction as a spinner, Ashwin wields a mean bat, and given that he's even scored a Test century, many would argue that he isn't really a 'tail-ender' and merits coming higher up the order.
On Tuesday, though, we saw another kind of 'tail-end' performance - on the political pitch, in Gujarat. But this one, by Rahul Gandhi, was as feckless as Ashwin's was gutsy. With his Congress team staring at the political equivalent of an innings defeat in Gujarat, the campaign's 'captain', who ought to have been leading from the front, abandoned the playing field in its entirety - except to put up a 'cameo performance' (as Salman Khurshid once said in a rare moment of political candour) as a 'tail-ender'.
And Rahul Gandhi's platform speeches in Gujarat were entirely true to form. They were characterised by the same tone of manufactured anger that he switches on whenever he wants to signal earnestness, the same ill-informed pablum that passes for policy debate, and the same political dishonesty that manifests itself whenever he sees corralled crowds.
At one level, of course, Rahul Gandhi's dilemma in dodging the Gujarat contest until the very end is easy to empathise with. Leading the campaign in the State from the front would have pitted him one-on-one with Narendra Modi, in a battle that even the Congress concedes is a lost cause. And a resounding defeat for the Congress under Rahul Gandhi's leadership - at the hands of a man who is increasingly being projected as the BJP's likely candidate for prime ministership in the 2014 general elections - would have set the tone for a Modi-versus-Rahul contest in 2014.
Coming on top of the Congress' humiliating fourth-place finish in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, even after Rahul Gandhi's in-the-trenches campaign there, a defeat in Gujarat would have validated growing perceptions about his incapacity to win elections for the party. Which is why the Congress evidently saw merit in shielding its "Richie Rich politician" from the rigours of frontline generalship in Gujarat. And not coming to Gujarat at all would have signalled weakness of another extreme sort.
However, to pass off political cowardice as master strategy requires gall of a very high order, which Congress spokespersons have been summoning up valiantly. Appearing on a CNN-IBN panel discussion late on Tuesday (watch it here), Renuka Chowdhury made bold to suggest that the decision to keep Rahul Gandhi from the campaign until the last minute was part of a Chanakyan political strategem, the details of which the Congress felt no compulsion to share with the lowly media.
On a good day, you can tell how badly Renuka Chowdhury is losing an argument from the number of smirks, grimaces and hyaenic laughs she resorts to: on that count, it was a debate she comprehensively lost last night.
The point is that Modi, for all the chatter surrounding his invincibility, is not unbeatable, as Firstpost noted earlier. There may even be a case to be made that the larger cause of social democracy is better served by having political alternatives to the BJP in Gujarat, which relies overmuch on one person's standing. But how can the Congress - and Rahul Gandhi - be taken seriously if the party and its putative leader concede a walkover and merely put up pantomimes?
In politics, there is no shame in losing a debate or even an election. Greater shame lies in running away from the field of battle, in the way that Rahul Gandhi has done. For all his exertions on Tuesday and for all the energy he was able to infuse in Congress leaders in the State, Rahul Gandhi would have been better off beaming videographed images of himself from Delhi: he would have at least mitigated his carbon footprint.
In fact, if he were given to learning in all humility, Rahul Gandhi can take one more lesson from cricketer Ashwin: of putting yourself out for your team in whatever capacity it calls upon you. In T20 matches, and occasionally even in Test matches, Ashwin comes out to open the bowling, even though the new ball isn't conducive for spin bowling. With every prospect of being hammered over the in-field, particularly given the field restrictions in place in the limited-over format, Ashwin still steps up gamely to the task because that's what the team wants of him.
For Rahul Gandhi the 'captain' to demote himself down the batting order and shield himself from battle - in one of the most defining State Assembly elections of our times - only shows fecklessness of a very high order. He may have dodged his draft and avoided the scene of battle this time, hiding behind a phalanx of courtiers, but the battle will be brought home to him sooner than he reckons.