NEW DELHI – A major reshuffle of India's Cabinet left one question dangling: Where is Rahul Gandhi?
The scion of India's Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is 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 Sunday in announcing his new Cabinet.
Singh, a technocrat, was chosen to fill the prime minister's seat in 2004 by Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi's mother. 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 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 grassroots 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.
Gandhi has also 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 Singh or his mother. His forceful speech against corruption in Parliament last year — during a major anti-graft protest against the government — was notable for its rarity.
Political analysts say that 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 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,'" she said.
Congress leaders said 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 that Gandhi was expected to assume a larger role in the party hierarchy and an announcement on this was expected in the coming week.
Calls to Gandhi's office were not answered. It was possible that he did not want to be too closely associated with the current government, which has been tainted by a raft of scandals.
The reshuffle Sunday — needed, in part, to fill seats left vacant after a coalition partner bolted — brought seven new ministers into the Cabinet and saw the entry of 15 junior ministers in a restructuring that brought younger faces into the leadership.
Former Law Minister Salman Khurshid, who was named the new foreign minister, is 20 years younger than his predecessor, and most of the other ministers sworn in Sunday are in their 50s or early 60s. In Indian politics, that is considered to be a relative youth movement. Singh said the shuffle was the last major Cabinet shake-up expected before the next national election.
But even in promoting some of the younger Congress lawmakers, the party leadership is cautious that they know their place.
"It's an unspoken rule in the Congress that nobody can, or will be allowed to outshine Rahul Gandhi among the younger lot," Ramachandran said.
Other analysts say working among the rural poor, as Gandhi has been doing for the past few years, will give him far greater insight than holding a ministerial job.
"At this point, the need to repair the Congress' image is a greater priority because of the various scams and allegations leveled against the party," said Vinod Sharma, a political analyst with the Hindustan Times newspaper.