Rahul launches an intercontinental missile at Manmohan

Last Updated: Sat, Sep 28, 2013 00:12 hrs

The Willard Hotel in Washington DC woke up, on Friday, to the news that Rahul Gandhi had an opinion. This was so unprecedented that every journalist immediately had to file a report.

On Thursday, the PMs' unaccustomed firmness in dealing with calls to postpone his visit to Pakistan had led to a certain degree of cheer; it seemed Manmohan Singh might get something done on this trip after all. The sun was out over DC on Thursday, turning distant views of the White House and the Capitol into tiny gleaming souvenirs; expectations ran high.

Of course, Manmohan Singh achieving anything would just make his party look bad. Or so it seems. The moment that an unshaven Rahul Gandhi's intemperately-expressed outburst on a recent UPA ordinance began to play in the giant screens in the hotel ballroom, a pall of gloom settled over the Indian delegation.

One particular sentence was, remarkably, used thrice in my hearing by three unrelated people to refer to Gandhi's statement on the ordinance: "He has killed the old man."

True, Manmohan Singh moved pretty swiftly for an about-to-be-former prime minister. A short statement was issued around breakfast time. That was pretty impressive - the second time so far this trip that Singh's responded swiftly to developments back home. Apparently, it followed a conversation with Congress President Sonia Gandhi. It is unknown whether the party president knew beforehand what the party vice-president's opinions were - and if not, why not.

The statement was pretty anodyne; it said that the matter would be reconsidered on his return. But there was one crucial piece of information: that Gandhi had written to Singh about the ordinance. Singh, presumably, would like to respond to a polite letter rather than the somewhat heated explosion he was having to watch on TV. Later, sources said that Singh had received further communication from Rahul Gandhi on the subject after his press conference, and that Sonia Gandhi had insisted Singh had the party's full support.

Although the intensity of the concern about Singh's future died down after the statement, the gloom did not. The trip was now worthless, people - including senior officials - worried. After all, if the man who was due to lead the Congress party was publicly rubbishing his government - and inexplicably clearing his party of involvement in the decision - then surely the prime minister was "finished". Why would President Obama talk frankly to a "lame duck" prime minister, one official wondered.  Another member of the delegation lamented the fact that Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dialled back from his earlier intent to reveal a major trade concession. "He won't concede anything to a man on his way out", they said. The consensus: Gandhi, in choosing this day to embarrass the PM, perhaps fatally, has done severe damage to India's interests.

That's the context in which the PM departed for the White House to meet and have lunch with President Obama. He had had a full plate in any case. Tempers in Washington DC, are running high against India. Several people in the US establishment, especially on Capitol Hill - the seat of the US legislature - told me that India is being seen as a villain when it comes to international co-operation as well as in various trade-related matters. Once such a reputation is built up, they say, it is very difficult to get rid of. For Japan, it took decades.

But, in the White House, the atmosphere seemed cordial enough. Obama called Singh an "outstanding partner" and specifically thanked Singh for keeping on pushing for peace with Pakistan. Security issues had forced themselves on an agenda that was meant to be more about economics. But, in spite of what seemed to be a love-fest between Singh and Obama - both being pilloried for being weak and indecisive -- the damage from Gandhi's statement will follow Singh to New York.

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