During a week when we pondered over the iron man of India, Sardar Patel, and remembered the iron lady, Mrs Indira Gandhi, a question kept flitting through my thoughts. Did the great Sardar dismantle the princely order of the British Raj only so that it might be replaced by a princely order of an Indian Raj?
Both Patel and Mrs Gandhi were undiluted nationalists, but the Sardar was not encumbered by any ism other than nationalism. Mrs Gandhi selected a limp form of socialism as her security blanket when the electoral temperature dropped for the Congress in 1969. Her weak-pink socialism provided the temporary warmth of false comfort. A highlight of her programme was the abolition of commitments made by Sardar Patel in 1947 to princes who surrendered their treaty rights with the British to join the Union of India.
And then, when the political weather turned icy in the wintry Emergency of 1975 and 1976, Mrs Gandhi turned her own party into a princely order, by opting for dynasty. The Nehru-Gandhis once belonged to the Congress; the Congress now belongs to the family.
Narendra Modi is the flavour of this season not because he is building a statue of Sardar Patel, but because he is the outsider who has laid siege to Delhi.
The idea of dynast, however, had such rare power that it went viral and infected other strains of Indian socialism, particularly the Ram Manohar Lohia school, which once took its ideology a little more seriously than it took God. The most lurid examples of reverse takeover are the parties led by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav. Their sperm-antics have had significant consequences, not just for them but also for the larger politics of north India. As the credibility of socialists gets punctured repeatedly in the north, the non-Congress space is being filled by BJP. The socialists lost the game early in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan; they could now be marginalised in UP and Bihar.
In theory, democracy provides an egalitarian opportunity base for merit to flourish and mediocrity to wither. A dynastic dispensation imposes entitlement on democracy. If pushed, dynasty seeks relevance through sentimental history. Rahul Gandhi wants legitimacy for his personal ambitions in the assassinations of his grandmother Mrs Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv. If the sacrifice of ancestors was sufficient to propel anyone to power, then surely the articulate Gopal Gandhi, great-grandson of the one Gandhi who was a Mahatma, deserves a look-in?
Those who milk the past, whether that icon be Mrs Gandhi or Sardar Patel, are missing the bigger point: young India's attention is locked into the future. Confidence in economic growth has snapped. Rising prices and falling incomes are the visible sides of an economy falling south. While their parents feel helpless, the young are beginning to feel hopeless. They want to believe in India, which is why they are so deeply incensed by the betrayal evident in the careless indifference of the UPA government. Their anger across the country is palpable to everyone except occupants of gilded cages in the Delhi zoo.
Narendra Modi is the flavour of this season not because he is building a statue of Sardar Patel, but because he is the outsider who has laid siege to Delhi. He is voice and beneficiary of this rage. Whenever Delhi's sniffy elite responds with contempt — as when a Cabinet minister dismisses Modi as a mere chaiwallah — it only increases the multitude behind Modi. After all, there are more Indians earning their livelihood through tea and labour than sons of a class that has passed its sell-by date. Modi has walked into the void of governance created by the UPA; the space is his to fill to the extent he is able to.
The best one can say about the spat over Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru is that, for a change, the debate is on a civilised subject. But not a single vote will be cast in 2014 about who would have been a better Prime Minister in 1947. The vote will be about who can be the best Prime Minister for 2014. Modi is lucky. He is facing a double vacuum. Dr Manmohan Singh has faded out, but Rahul Gandhi is not being permitted to fade in, since the Congress leadership is uncertain about the consequences of a head-to-head comparison.
It is perfectly reasonable for a political party on the dipping end of public support to raise its drowning spirits by clutching at a straw. Hence the floater that Modi has peaked too early; elections are still six months away. The objective answer lies in the Diwali depression visible in the shops. A recent survey showed that 57% respondents believed this is the worst Diwali in a decade. As for the next six months, 77% thought the economy would remain as bad or get worse. Such a trend might ease, but will not disappear. India is not a happy nation. That should make any ruling party deeply unhappy.