Is Rahul Gandhi the Congress’s Prime Ministerial candidate for 2014? The question becomes unavoidable because the fifth-generation Nehru-Gandhi has pole-vaulted to presumed second place in the organisation with his appointment as war-room manager for the next general election. Sonia Gandhi, who spurned the prime ministership when it came to her, is seen as having transcended that ambition. Manmohan Singh, who turned 80 this September, is not a credible candidate for a third term, which leaves the newly-elevated Rahul as the only eligible contender from the Congress for the executive hot seat. Yet the word from party and government is that no one will be projected as Prime Minister. This in a set-up full of supplicants clamouring to declare their everlasting loyalty to the Gandhi son. The results of the 2009 general election were still rolling in when Jyotiraditya Scindia asked for Rahul to be made Prime Minister, seemingly unaware that this was an unacceptable breach of protocol. Other ministers have not held back on the eulogy. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s reaction to the younger Gandhi’s recent promotion was that he considered himself blessed to have him as his commander. In other words, it is not for lack of fulsome endorsement from within his party that the Congress has put Rahul’s higher aspirations on hold.
The Congress’s problem is this: The party is only too aware that the dynasty is its lifeblood and oxygen. A sense of destiny has come to surround the clan from which India drew three of its Prime Ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and son Rajiv. Sonia Gandhi opted to miss the opportunity. While this makes a Nehru-Gandhi the automatic choice for Prime Minister in the event of a Congress victory, it also means that the family must be safeguarded from possible electoral adversity. Rahul has inherited a party hamstrung by corruption scandals and sharply declining electoral prospects in the States. Runaway inflation and the recently unveiled economic reforms package — including Foreign Direct Investment in multibrand retail — have severely hit the Congress’s image. Indeed, Rahul’s new innings coincide with a session of Parliament which looks certain to see some fireworks on the reforms, more so in the light of Mamata Banerjee’s threatened no-confidence motion against the government, notwithstanding the less than lukewarm support other parties have extended to her initiative. If elections happen sooner than 2014, Rahul’s job as campaign strategist will become that much more difficult. The Congress is being protective of the Gandhi son because it knows it cannot waste him on a defeated election.