No spot for Gandhi in Cabinet reshuffle

NEW DELHI — A major reshuffle of India's Cabinet on Sunday left one question dangling: Where was Rahul Gandhi?

The scion of India’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was not among the new ministers, meaning that if — as expected — he leads his Congress party into 2014 elections, he will be running for prime minister without ever having held a government post of any kind.

“I would have been happy to include Rahul in the Cabinet, but he has other preoccupations in the party,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in announcing his new Cabinet.

Mr. Singh, a technocrat, was chosen to fill the prime minister’s seat in 2004 by Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother.

Mr. Singh was widely seen as a regent, keeping the seat warm until Rahul Gandhi — the son, grandson and great-grandson of Indian prime ministers — was ready to take his birthright.

But Mr. Gandhi has displayed little public sign that he is undergoing any sort of apprenticeship that would prepare him for running the country.

His allies argued he was rebuilding the party at the grass-roots level and has taken a lead in the Congress‘ campaigns in state elections in Uttar Pradesh and in Bihar in recent years. The party performed poorly in both elections.

Mr. Gandhi also has positioned himself as the defender of the common people, joining protesters at land rights demonstrations and even getting briefly arrested.

But in moments of crisis, he has rarely taken the lead, preferring to defer to Mr. Singh or his mother. His forceful speech against corruption in Parliament last year — amid a major anti-graft protest against the government — was notable for its rarity.

Political analysts say that Mr. Gandhi’s refusal to take a Cabinet position, and be held accountable for the workings of a government ministry, could prove to be a handicap when the time comes to face the electorate.

“Definitely, the expectations were that Rahul Gandhi would move on from being a learner and take on more responsibility,” said Aarthi Ramachandran, who has written a book on him.

It would have helped Mr. Gandhi’s own credibility if he had taken a position in the government or a ministry where he could have shown results, she said.

“The party could have gone to the people during the election campaign and said, ‘This is what Rahul Gandhi has done for the people,’” Ms. Ramachandran said.

Congress leaders said Mr. Gandhi would concentrate on reviving the party’s fortunes ahead of the national elections instead of being responsible for a narrow Cabinet position.

Digvijay Singh, a Congress general secretary, indicated Sunday that Mr. Gandhi was expected to assume a larger role in the party hierarchy and an announcement on this was expected in the coming week.

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