Rahul Gandhi has finally assumed the number two slot in the Congress — a role that has been his for the asking. Yet in the time-honoured tradition of the First Family, he resisted the inevitable. For years, Rahul displayed an aloofness and disinterest that drove Congresspersons to the edge of despair. Not surprisingly, there was unbound joy when the expected happened at the party’s conclave in Jaipur on Saturday. Although there is no official word on this yet, it is a fair bet that Rahul will lead the Congress into the 2014 general election. For the rank and file, a Nehru-Gandhi in line for the prime ministership is a cherished wish that has gone unfulfilled ever since Rajiv Gandhi lost the 1989 general election. The Congress has till date not come to terms with the fact that in 2004, Sonia Gandhi passed up the opportunity to become Prime Minister, choosing instead to nominate Manmohan Singh in her place.
In his time, Rajiv was as much the reluctant heir-apparent: he came into politics against his will and found himself made Prime Minister by circumstances not of his making. In the case of Rahul, the die was cast the moment he stepped into politics. Indeed, the Nehru-Gandhis could be royalty and the Congress a monarchy judging from the way a clan member is automatically assumed to have first rights over leadership. For Rahul this is the easier part of his job, which he has inherited at the worst possible juncture with challenges to the Congress coming at full speed from multiple directions. From corruption to social unrest to diminishing electoral returns in the States, not to mention the dire state of the economy, the Congress is up against impossible odds. The Congress chief was candid enough to admit to the problems at Jaipur. Ms Gandhi correctly diagnosed the disconnect between her party’s old-school outlook and the larger aspirations of today’s angry and assertive youth force (the sentiment was echoed by Rahul in his own speech). Yet some of her solutions were simplistic, including the suggestion to partypersons to avoid ostentation as a way of fighting corruption. The corruption that has reached the highest echelons in the Congress surely belongs in a bigger league. The refusal of party and government to acknowledge this fact has been made worse by their arrogance towards the common citizenry. If all this were not enough, Rahul also faces a potential adversary in Narendra Modi, should the Bharatiya Janata Party project him as its prime ministerial candidate. Nonetheless, Rahul must be complimented on choosing to walk the difficult path at a difficult time — and understanding that defeat and victory are as much part of life as they are of politics.