In the eight years since he was elected to Parliament from Amethi, Rahul Gandhi has shown a lot of political promise but little else. As a leader of the new generation in the Nehru-Gandhi lineage, he was expected to play a prominent role, first in the party, and later, in government. In 2004, when his mother declined the prime ministership and instead asked Manmohan Singh to lead the country, Rahul’s reluctance to jump into governance was understandable. A quick, dramatic entry into Cabinet at that point would have undermined the Prime Minister, who had no political base of his own and who depended entirely on the Congress’s first family for his political survival. Rahul chose instead to work within the organisational ranks of the Congress; his decision was both tactical and strategic. The fact that he did not seem greedy for the fruits of power and appeared ready to go through the drudgery of field work did his public image a lot of good. But he also tried to use his leadership over the Youth Congress and students’ wing to democratise these organisations — and through them — the ‘mother party’. Though his efforts helped the Congress draw fresh talent, the grip of the old guard, sadly, remains just as firm today as it was eight years ago. More than the indifferent electoral results Rahul produced in Uttar Pradesh this year then, it is his failure to make a dent in the party organisation that must surely rankle more.
Clearly, Rahul Gandhi is not, and could never have been, the answer to all the shortcomings of the Congress. But if he is the heir-apparent, as the entire party thinks he is, and he is to be projected as a prime ministerial candidate in 2014, he must end his wanderings through the thicket of the party organisation and take on concrete ministerial responsibilities. Congress leader Salman Khursheed got it partly right when he lamented the fact that Rahul had so far only shown “cameos” of his thoughts and ideas. The answer, though, is not for him to come up with some “grand announcement” for India but to demonstrate to the people that he can actually administer, as a minister, some of the small but important infrastructure programmes of the UPA government. On Thursday, he indicated his readiness to take on a more pro-active role in the party and the government. He should forget about the party for now. In 2012, Rahul can have no excuse for staying away from the Cabinet. Anything else would appear as a shirking of responsibility, or worse, as aversion to working under Manmohan Singh. Indeed, his entry could give the Prime Minister a perfect opportunity to wield some long knives in his next Cabinet reshuffle and give younger ministers the responsibility they deserve.