Beware the fury of a patient man, wrote the English poet, John Dryden, in the 17th century. Rahul Gandhi hasn't been a patient man so much as a quiet one, who has occasionally broken longish periods of silence and absence from India to indulge in philosophical musings, such as that poverty is "a state of the mind".
However, his vehement outburst against the ordinance about convicted legislators appears to be the release of pent-up anger about the government's functioning. As his reference to political compromises during the brief interaction with the Press showed, he must have been fed up not only with the Congress's cynicism, but also its indifference towards public opinion. Even the perceptible decline in its popularity does not seem to bother the party or the prime minister.
The ordinance was only the latest example of how the Congress turned a blind eye both to matters of principle - in this case, defending the indefensible by trying to save the convicted M.P.s - and also to constitutional propriety since the dubious nature of the ordinance has been commented upon by jurists. Before bringing forward the ordinance, the Congress had also displayed the same insouciance to popular sentiment by seeking to amend the Right to Information Act to keep the political parties out of its purview.
True, the Congress isn't the only party which has been engaged in unwholesome conduct. The entire political class has been guilty of the same offence since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is among those which supported the ordinance and the RTI amendment, notwithstanding its subsequent disingenuous disclaimers.
This culpability of the political class, which invariably comes together for a self-serving cause, was one of Rahul's points of criticism during a Congress conclave in Jaipur where he said that every political party is run by a coterie. He was laughed at then because he himself belongs to such a clique if the Congress high command can be so called. But, it now appears that the unhappiness against such a closed shop in his own party has been building up and may have contributed to Friday's outburst.
It is too early to say if Rahul intends to take his party in a direction where morality will play a larger role than "political considerations" which, he said, had been behind the ordinance. It doesn't take any great political acumen to understand that the "considerations" which guided the prime minister related to the impending judgment in the fodder scam case against Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Just as Manmohan Singh once hinted that the government desisted from taking any action against former telecommunications minister Andimuthu Raja in order to avoid having a general election if the DMK withdrew its support, similarly, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader had to be saved at any cost from disqualification as a time when the Congress needs every friendly party to stand by it to counter the challenge posed by Narendra Modi.
What these expedient manoeuvres show is that the presence of a personally honest prime minister is no guarantee of a government's adherence to principles. Manmohan Singh himself must have been deeply embarrassed by Rahul's conduct since it has undermined the prime minister's prestige as never before.
The Congress vice-president could have been more polite, especially since the prime minister was on foreign soil. It goes without saying that the event is deeply destabilizing for the government.
Predictably, there are calls for Manmohan Singh to resign. It may be recalled that the prime minister had offered to resign when Sonia Gandhi went to his house to ask him to seek the resignations of Ashwini Kumar on the coalgate issue, and of Pawan Bansal for the dubious behaviour of one of the latter's relatives.
However, if Rahul is serious about forcing the government to abandon its habitual cynicism, he has a big fight on his hands. He may not be too concerned about taking on the prime minister. But, he will be posing a challenge to Sonia Gandhi since it cannot be believed that she had no inkling the ordinance.
There is little doubt that if Rahul comes forward as a knight in shining armour to root out political skullduggery, there will be a huge surge of support for him. But, his "revolt" cannot be a one step forward, two steps back tactic of Lenin. He will have to be far more forthright in his denunciation of the power brokers, as his father Rajiv Gandhi did in 1985, and not restrict himself to a single wrathful expression - the ordinance is "nonsense".
His task will be difficult because he has a baggage to carry. If Modi is hobbled by the 2002 riots, Rahul has the legacy of Indira Gandhi's authoritarianism, Rajiv Gandhi's linkage with the Bofors scam and his own privileged upbringing which has made him a "parachute", as he once said of himself.
Yet, if he plays the role of the knight in real earnest, he can revive memories of Indira's battle against the "reactionary" Syndicate (of old Congress leaders of the time) and Rajiv's pre-Bofors image of being Mr Clean.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org