It is a long way back to zero point. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was re-elected in 2009, almost the first thing he did was to offer Rahul Gandhi his job. It was a public pledge, made through a press conference; since then he has repeated the offer whenever asked. Five years later, it is Rahul Gandhi who is ducking the question even as Dr Singh has begun to philosophize about a third term.
As we enter another election season, the Congress, with its discordant chorus over a prospective Prime Minister, has made one significant Opposition weakness irrelevant. Both camps will now leave the answer to circumstance rather than intention.
The much-awaited contest between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, hyped by TV news stations anxious for ratings, could well be the non-event of this teenage century. Rahul Gandhi is uncertain in his mind. Modi is uncertain about the partners BJP needs to form a possible government. Nitish Kumar has made it clear that he wants a BJP without Modi at the top; indeed, if he was going to part with BJP there would be no need to harp on this subject. Naveen Patnaik in Orissa or Mamata Banerjee in Bengal or Jagan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh do not make a statement a week on Modi.
The Congress has not given up on Rahul Gandhi; it cannot, but he seems to have evolved into a long-term project. All his sympathisers point out that he has time; in ten years the latest Gandhi will be only 53. Does this leave Congress with a short-term problem? The party has reconciled itself to the fact that the interim will be fluid. Its fondest hope is that the worst-case scenario, defeat in the next general elections, will blossom into a best-case opportunity if the next non-Congress alliance flounders in the manner that the V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar governments did between 1989 and 1991.
In the meanwhile, it is the job of party spin doctors to maximise the positive side of whatever Rahul Gandhi chooses to do. But spin has a problem when it meets reality television. The audience of industrialists at the CII convention, where Rahul Gandhi projected India as a beehive — possibly with a Queen Bee at the helm and drones alongside — was far less important than the audience outside watching this performance live on television.
Rahul Gandhi’s CII speech was heard on TV by precisely those young voters who, buoyed by high expectations, supported Dr Manmohan Singh hugely in 2009.
Industrialists come to such events pre-programmed. They have learnt that the best insurance is to praise the powerful in public; it may not help, but it cannot hurt. It does not matter who is in power. If L.K. Advani becomes Prime Minister they will sing paeans to the wisdom of grey hair. If Modi becomes PM, they will turn Gujarat into an economic model for every nation from America to Zaire. And if Rahul Gandhi is PM during the next CII convention, all those who rooted for Modi in the elections will wear a badge saying "India is safe under Rahul for 50 years". Don't blame industrialists. They lead a tough life.
The popular reaction is what matters. A daily newspaper which is reasonably sympathetic to Rahul Gandhi polled its readers on the impact of his CII speech. An astonishing 85% thought he had not addressed concerns about his leadership abilities; only 10% were positive. This probably reflects, in part, the widespread middle class anger against Congress, but even if that were so what is evident is that Rahul Gandhi is not yet the answer to this seething rage. He could be tomorrow, but he is not so today.
Perhaps the great dilemma of Rahul Gandhi is that he is less interested in political glory than his supporters are. Leadership in politics is a compelling, consuming profession which demands 18-hour days. Most of these hours are spent in that difficult art of being nice to strangers, and leaving them with some hope that there is something better on the horizon. The rest of the time is taken by implementing policy if you are in government, or offering alternatives if you are not. Politics is a business of detail. Short cuts are an invitation to accidents, and you cannot drive on both sides of the street. If you have been in power for nine years, you cannot give a lecture on systems failure. You have to explain why you did nothing about the system. Curiously, this is one job which does not become less demanding during the fallow phase. Whether you win or lose an election, you have to grind away if you are a serious player.
Rahul Gandhi's CII speech was heard on TV by precisely those young voters who, buoyed by high expectations, supported Dr Manmohan Singh hugely in 2009. Perhaps such expectations had nowhere to go but down. Rahul Gandhi was perfectly placed to inherit their affections, but they are searching for other heroes in 2013.