Hailing from a family of prime ministers starting from his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv Gandhi, 48-year-old Congress president Rahul Gandhi is often seen as a reluctant prince in line for the crown, but recent months have seen him make a sharp turnaround and emerge as the primary challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His recent faux pas on the campaign trail for the Lok Sabha elections, however, show that he has much to learn.
While the BJP has long been trying to erode his credentials, the latest criticism has come from the Supreme Court which recently issued a notice of criminal contempt to Rahul Gandhi while rejecting a plea for closing the matter related to his ‘chowkidar chor hai’ remarks incorrectly attributed to the top court.
The apex court will now hear the matter on April 30 along with the review petitions related to the Rafale fighter deal. The notice was issued a day after Gandhi expressed regret to the Supreme Court for his comments over which BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi had moved a contempt petition.
The Congress President had made the controversial comment after the top court on April 10, while agreeing to hear review petitions in the Rafale case, rejected the government contention that classified documents accessed by the media cannot be considered as evidence.
Gandhi had claimed that the Supreme Court had acknowledged that ‘chowkidar chor hai', an euphemism he uses to target Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the context of the Rafale deal.
The BJP took objection to this and Lekhi moved a contempt of court petition in the apex court.
While hearing the petition, a three-member bench, headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, had taken strong exception to Gandhi's comment, saying he had "incorrectly attributed" the remarks to the top court.
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for Lekhi, said Gandhi's affidavit was just a lip-service and that he has expressed no apology.
He said the Congress President had exhibited a reckless attitude in making such statements.
"He [Gandhi] has said that he did not read the order and that he said it in a euphoric manner," Rohatgi said.
He went on to add, "His [Gandhi's] statement from Amethi to Wayanad is Supreme Court said ‘chowkidar chor hai' and Narendra Modi is the ‘chowkidar' [guard]. Is this how a leader of national party treats the Supreme Court?"
Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for Gandhi, requested the court to close the case against the Congress President.
He said the contempt plea by Lekhi was an act of political flogging in the middle of the ongoing elections.
Critics say Rahul owes everyone an apology about his Rafale comments and just a passing mention of regret will not do. Gandhi's affidavit says it was in the heat of political campaigning that he "unfortunately juxtaposed the court order and the deal".
Last year, the BJP had called out the Gandhi scion by posting a video where Rahul is seen quoting two different prices of the Rafale jet at the same election rally. The faux pas happened during an election rally in Bhopal on September 18.
On the very day that he received the contempt notice, the Congress president sparked another political controversy by referring to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah as a "murder accused" during an election rally in Jabalpur.
The Congress President also took a dig at Shah's son Jay Shah by calling him a "magician."
"Murder accused BJP President Amit Shah ...waah! kya shaan hai... Have you heard Jay Shah's name? He is a magician, he made Rs 50,000 into Rs 80 crore in 3 months," Gandhi said in an apparent reference to the alleged disproportionate assets case against Amit Shah's son.
This is not the first time that Gandhi has referred to Shah as a "murder accused."
Last month, the BJP had filed a complaint with the Chief Electoral Officer of Tripura against Gandhi for allegedly referring to Shah as a "murder accused" at a rally in Khumulwng in Tripura.
In May 2018, in an apparent reference to the accusation that Shah once faced for his alleged involvement in the killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh in 2005, Gandhi had said: "People in India forget that the President of BJP is a murder accused. That's the truth. The party that talks about honesty and decency has a person who has been accused of murder as President."
Shah was discharged in the case in 2014. In 2016, the apex court also turned down demands that the BJP president be probed again.
BJP leader and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has hit out at Rahul Gandhi saying his "very low credibility" has been "eroded even further" with him having to express regret to the Supreme Court over his statement in connection with the Rafale deal judgment.
Jaitley said in a video message that there should be sanctity to every word spoken by senior leaders of a political party.
The BJP leader said that Gandhi, of late, has made a daily routine of "making recklessly false statements". "He was wrong on several counts that I have been pointing out in the last six months. He had no qualms of taking liberty with the truth. The reality is now he has had to express regret," he said.
Jaitley said he did not wish to comment on the matter pending before court.
"When public leaders express regret over their statements, that we lied to people, it is issue of credibility of such leaders. He had very low level of credibility which has been eroded even further," he said.
Engaging social media campaigns, improved public speaking, and friendly interacting with audiences in town hall settings has helped Rahul emerge as a savvy politician, however Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains ahead of him by leaps and bounds. While he has made promises of progressive politics, Rahul still needs to establish his credentials.