There was a time when Rahul Gandhi was the next great hope of Congress. It is difficult to remember now but in the initial glow of his maiden Lok Sabha entry in 2004, the Gandhi scion was hailed as a youth icon, a fresh agent of change from within and keeper of the Congress flame. In his early years in the cauldron of politics, people were willing to give the young dynast time to find his feet.
The trouble is that Rahul's journey of self-discovery is never-ending. While he keeps struggling to find his centre in politics, the party he represents continues to vanish. His latest leave of absence from Congress to "reflect on recent events relating to the party and its future course" may have been understandable in the immediate after-shock of the Lok Sabha election debacle. Now, nine months into the Modi government's tenure and during a crucial budget session that is divided on the land acquisition bill – one of the few issues Rahul Gandhi cared to speak about in Parliament – his absence provides more mirth than answers.
If Rahul introspects seriously on his mysterious sabbatical, he ought to see his own and his mother's hand behind his party's misfortunes. Congress lost 9% of national vote share between 2009 and 2014, declining from 28.6% to 19.3%. Its constant reverses in state assembly elections and the total wipe-out in Delhi indicates that its crisis is more than just the normal ebb and flow of political fortunes.
The time has come for Congress to take a call. The All India Congress Committee will meet in April 2015 and the party's current state of limbo is unsustainable. Sonia must anoint a successor or call for open elections in which the family does not take part. Congress held on to the Gandhis so far because they got votes and prevented the party from splitting. Their vote-catching aura has clearly dimmed and keeping the party together may not matter much if it disappears as a political force. This is why a clear decision is needed. If inner party elections are held without Rahul then the winner will have legitimacy and internal democracy will be the cement holding the party together. Congress needs to act now.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.