Rahul Gandhi made no effort to suppress his glee when he strolled out to meet the media after BJP lost the Bihar election by a mile to the Nitish-Lalu-Congress grand alliance last November. This is a win, he said, for "bhaichara" and PM Modi should listen carefully to what the country is saying.
On Thursday, a reported bout of Chikungunya spared Rahul the trouble of having to offer a sound bite. Congress's tally falling from 163 to 115 MLAs in five states with 824 MLAs speaks for itself. Even in Puducherry, the battle went down to the wire. Congress now has governments only in Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Himachal, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram. The defeats bring the debate over Rahul's taking formal charge of Congress into sharp focus, reflecting an intense desire in the party rank and file, even among those not exactly enamoured of his political style, that he accept the party president's mantle and be done with it.
Barring Bihar, the question mark over Rahul's leadership is getting bigger as Congress shows no signs of electoral revival two years after being reduced to 44 MPs in Lok Sabha. If Congress needed a firm signal from Rahul, this is the moment. Decisions to align with the Left in the 'Bharat Mata' debate and later in West Bengal polls failed to unsettle BJP or dent either regional rival Mamata Banerjee.
While he did not take command, as was widely propagated by his confidants, after Congress landed on the winning side in the Bihar 'grand alliance', the pressure has only grown. After all, rebels like Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam -a key player in BJP's success in the northeastern state -left Congress in a huff, claiming that Rahul treated him shabbily and was more interested in playing with his dog than discussing issues of the state when the two had met in Delhi.