I would be surprised, but not stunned since nothing is impossible in politics, if Rahul Gandhi joined Dr Manmohan Singh's Cabinet in the latest reshuffle. Barring one exception, no member of the Nehru family — now known as the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty — has served either at the regional level, or in some other leader's government.
It was far from certain in 1937 that India would be free in 1947, but Jawaharlal Nehru, the most famous leader of United Provinces [the British name for the area now broadly Uttar Pradesh], did not ever consider the possibility of heading the first Congress government formed in the state, even as a stepping stone to post-Raj Prime Ministership. It is either the Delhi penthouse or nothing, no matter how long the wait or how bleak the political circumstance. The one exception was when Mrs Indira Gandhi became Lal Bahadur Shastri's Information and Broadcasting Minister. She quickly tired of this middleweight portfolio. She was born to fight in a higher division.
When Mrs Sonia Gandhi could not become Prime Minister in 2004, there was no question of serving instead as Home or Finance Minister. Conversely, if she had been sworn in, Dr Singh would have been delighted to become her Finance Minister. Curiously, no heir has even been a member of a parent's Cabinet. Mrs Indira Gandhi became Congress president when Jawaharlal was alive; she played a crucial political role both in the dismissal of the first Left-alliance government in Kerala as well as during the aftermath of the military defeat in the 1962 China war. But she did not become a minister under Nehru. Nor did Rajiv Gandhi believe that he ought to join his mother's ministry, if only to train for her job.
Rahul Gandhi can read the tea leaves as well as anyone else. The gossip society gets hyperactive before any reshuffle, and there are many who believe that he wants to transition towards the future through a spell as External Affairs Minister, considered a soft job [which it is not, incidentally]. The family line, however, wanders between either PM or Leader of the Opposition. In 1977 Mrs Gandhi would have been Leader of the Opposition if she had won her seat in Rae Bareli. When she was elected from Chikmagalur in a later byelection, a nervous [or fatuous] Janata Party foolishly wasted its time trying to debar her from sitting in the Lok Sabha. Rajiv Gandhi was Leader of the Opposition in the 1989-1991 Parliament. Rahul Gandhi will get both public sympathy and real-time training on the vital intricacies of our form of government, if he sits in the House on the Opposition benches after the next general elections.
Rahul Gandhi's assessment of Congress problems is far more accurate than that of his seniors, including his mother. Corruption and poor governance during UPA2 will of course take their toll when these elections are held; but this is compounded by a collapse of party infrastructure. Compare Congress with Sharad Pawar's NCP, for instance. Even at any low ebb of its reputation, NCP will always deliver a seat or two more than its electoral worth because of organisational strength. Congress, on the other hand, disappears when it is defeated. It is heavyweight in power, and dust in opposition. This is already evident in Karnataka, where Congress will not be able to maximise the advantage offered by a weakened BJP. The wispy Deve Gowda may reap more benefit if the BJP crumbles than the Congress.
The "wave theory" has made Congress complacent. This is a belief that the voter identifies Congress with sympathetic and stable government, rather than organisation and ideology; therefore there is no point in wasting any time upon the latter. It is hardly an accident that ideologically motivated parties, like the Leftists or BJP, have the more loyal organisations.
It is perfectly logical that Rahul, who can look forward to at least three more decades in politics, should take a long view particularly with so much turbulence ahead. The coming storms will test not just the skills of the skipper, but also the sturdiness of the ship. At the moment Congress is leaking like an upturned water sprinkler. Rahul Gandhi's attempts to add tar to the party's keel by improving the Youth Congress base have mostly failed, but he needs to persist till the cadre understand.
Victory and defeat are cyclical, as indeed they should be; UPA2 is in tatters because it thought it had purchased a permanent seat in power. A party has to be ready for life after defeat. Mrs Gandhi saved Congress from 1977's desolation because of two reasons: her own unparalleled relationship with the underprivileged, and the fact that the Congress organisation had not yet withered. Rahul Gandhi has neither of these advantages. It is going to be a hard life ahead, and no shuffle or reshuffle can ease its pain.