The destiny of the Nehru-Indira family seems to move in twenty-year cycles. Its journey in power began on June 15, 1945 when Jawaharlal Nehru was released from his last spell in a British jail and Mahatma Gandhi immediately began to manoeuvre his heir towards centre stage. It ended on May 27, 1964 when India's first Prime Minister shut his eyes for the last time.
Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi joined government in 1964 and was assassinated in 1984, but there was a more significant political parallel. Her domination did not begin in 1966, when she became prime minister, but in 1969, when she split Congress and took control of both party and government. Her grip over Congress survived the hiccup of defeat in 1977, and she was back in power by January 1980. The family lost control, first of government and then of party, after Rajiv Gandhi's defeat in 1989, and his tragic assassination in 1991.
The family was unable to occupy the prime minister's office, despite electoral success in 1991, 2004 and 2009. After two decades, the Congress met at Jaipur to declare that this quasi-barren spell is over. There will be only one fountainhead of power, Rahul Gandhi, for the foreseeable future. Manmohan Singh is the last non-family Congress PM for as long as Rahul Gandhi chooses to remain in politics. Pranab Mukherjee was prescient. He shifted residence to Rashtrapati Bhavan at the right time. Some ambitious hearts in the higher echelons of the present Cabinet have probably suffered a silent attack, but they must reconcile their dreams to reality: there is space for eminence in Congress, but none for pre-eminence.
Rahul Gandhi has always had as much power as he wanted to exercise. The difference after Jaipur is that the Regent, Sonia Gandhi, will start to fade from decision-making. Sonia has not withdrawn fully only because she is still uncertain about her son's ability, as if it was a puberty transition rather than an adult transfer of power. Rahul Gandhi may have stepped into only one of the two shoes his mother wears, but there is no confusion over who will be Congress candidate for prime minister in the next general elections, and indeed in the elections after that, irrespective of victory or defeat. Merit, or its absence, is never an issue when you have been anointed with a divine right to rule. The chorus of hallelujahs at Jaipur is an obligatory requirement.
If there is a law of averages then Rahul Gandhi is possibly headed for better things. He has had such a miserable record so far, the nadir reached in Uttar Pradesh, that his fortunes surely must improve at some point. He could, in the short term, also become beneficiary of a fine paradox. So far the wrap of glamour has raised expectations that were clearly beyond his ability. But once expectations are lowered, even ordinary statements begin to sound above par. That is a distinct advantage when you need to reinvent yourself. The old avatar, in which Rahul Gandhi could disappear for weeks on holiday while rage against rape swept the streets, will obviously no longer do. He will be obliged to answer awkward questions on Telengana, or why Akbaruddin Owaisi can get bail but not Jagan Reddy.
There are solutions; Congress is not devoid of talent. Rahul Gandhi should take tuition from Ghulam Nabi Azad, party general secretary in charge of Andhra Pradesh. Azad had a superb explanation when asked why the Congress had backtracked on home minister Sushil Shinde's promise to announce a final decision by January 28. "When one says tomorrow," said Azad, "it does not mean tomorrow morning. When one says one week, sometimes it is two weeks." Or possibly months.
Brilliant. A politician must treat words as slaves, not as masters. Azad should also open classes for Digvijay Singh, who addresses Osama bin Laden and Hafiz Saeed with all the respect due to owners of vote banks, and Shinde, who believes that India has become victim of "Hindu terrorism." If the BJP gets elected, the party will doubtless send formal thank you letters to Singh and Shinde.
Every succeeding cycle offers diminishing returns. Jawaharlal led the Congress in three general elections and never lost any. Indira Gandhi lived on a roller coaster. She swept to a delirious victory in 1971, collapsed dramatically in 1977 and fashioned an amazing resurrection in 1980. Rajiv Gandhi had a steamroller triumph in 1984, and then ebbed to defeat in 1989. 3-0; 2-1; 1-1: the scores tell the story. It is unwise to predict results of any election that is still a year away, but Rahul Gandhi just might have to begin life at the top with an electoral setback. His choice in 2014 will be between a ramshackle coalition, or a period in opposition. That is when the Congress will know whether the heir is also a leader.
The writer is Editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.