In the Indian political lore, the reluctant prince is an unusual character, an alluring anomaly amidst those who thrive in entitlements. His existential badge of I'm-not-ready-yet is all the more exceptional because he is the chosen one of India's oldest party whose evolutionary saga is inseparable from the fortunes of India's first family in politics. He is the heir to a political tradition that has put the supremacy of genealogy above ideology.
His bloodline is his ticket to power; his surname is his highest political qualification. Still, Rahul Gandhi is a profile in patience; his modesty is in conflict with his ancestral privileges. India, though, is impatient; it wants more of him. In the INDIA TODAY Mood of the Nation Poll, he gets the maximum votes as prime ministerial candidate.
It is not the enigma of the mother but the mystique of the son that is turning out to be the biggest political asset of the Congress. It is the psephological equivalent of matricide as Rahul dislodges Sonia to the third slot. (Not surprisingly, the popularity of Atal Bihari Vajpayee continues to be intact even though he has retired from public life.) The enormity of Rahul's popularity is further magnified by the shrinking acceptability of Manmohan Singh as prime minister. In public perception, Manmohan is nothing more than a dutiful figure of transition; and to be fair, the man has never had any exaggerated notion about himself as an overwhelming political presence. His fall is so drastic and certainly embarrassing for him in his sixth year as prime minister that there seems be a clear case of disconnect between the much marketed moderniser and the unforgiving Indian public. A loser even in urban India and in his home state of Punjab, Manmohan has been condemned to 13th position. Of the 21 per cent gain in Rahul's popularity, 17 comes from Manmohan's and two from Sonia. There is only one message: Brand Manmohan has already passed its use-by date and the voters want the family (read Rahul) back in power.
The political reality of a rising Rahul eroding the popularity of Sonia and Manmohan not only brings out the shifting axis of authority within the Congress. It also tells the changing dynamics of the dynasty. It is often said that too much sunshine should not be allowed to fall on the mystique, and Sonia Gandhi seems to have taken it literally. Despite being one of the most powerful politicians in the world, she is still not comfortable in the public eye. The Sonia enigma is born out of that cultivated aura of inaccessibility. The second Mrs G in the making has not obviously learnt the art of emotionally connecting with the masses from the original. It looks like the grandson has gained more from the family album.
That said, the rising Rahul marks a definitive shift from the family script. Most Gandhis before him were children of destiny. Indira was made the president of the party when she was 40 by Nehru; Rajiv's political career began in the glow of his mother's funeral pyre. And Sonia acquired her political legitimacy as the widow of an assassinated Gandhi. Rahul has created his own syllabus for his political graduation, and he has chosen Uttar Pradesh, the home state of his ancestry, as his karmabhoomi. His Discover-India picaresque has made him a favourite of both India and Bharat. And he has a voice of his own, distinctive and daring, and often at variance with the party's.
His patience is not in tune with the political zeitgeist, and six years of apprenticeship and still waiting for the right moment at the age of 40 can be mistaken for diffidence at a time when the president of the United States has just celebrated his 49th birthday, when the prime minister of the UK is only 43. For the Rahulites within the party, it is as if the crown prince is still passing through his political adolescence. As our survey shows, in India, where over 70 per cent of the electorate is below the age of 35, he is the ideal as well as the alternative. And tellingly, Rahul's rise is not matched by his party. For the young, he embodies the politics of change, though he has not proved his ability to win elections beyond Uttar Pradesh and we have not yet heard from him his vision for 21st century India, which is today waiting for Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi.
India is ready. Is he?