In deferring -- yet again -- his coronation as the Congress' Prime Ministerial candidate, Rahul Gandhi shows a curious lack of confidence: after trumpeting, in every election over a number of years, that its fortunes in U.P. and Bihar would revive because Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi would campaign for it (anything close to even 220 seats in India's 545-seat Parliament seems impossible absent a marked reversal in the party's pathetic showing in those states over the last decade or two, given the number of seats they account for), the Congress' dismal streak has only continued in the "Hindi heartland." It was only when the Congress stopped living in its dream world -- one in which the Congress is India's "natural" party of governance -- and woke up to the new reality of necessary and inevitable coalition governments (a recognition no doubt aided by the NDA's ability to serve out a complete term despite the fact that the party at its center, the BJP, won barely a third of the seats in Parliament), that the Congress was able to return to power in Delhi, and emulate the NDA (with even fewer seats for the Congress in 2004 than the BJP had managed in 1999).
But the party's cult of the family (that would surely have horrified its first and greatest Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru), shows that the lesson has not been learned too well. Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi, the latest dynasty kids, perennially draw huge crowds -- because they are the ultimate celebrities (and let's face it, are far more telegenic than the usual septa- or octogenarian stumbling over his lines on-stage). And then there is the undeniable fact that many urban, youthful voters fawn over Rahul Gandhi because of social class — he just seems so “refined”, thereby presenting a way for the young voter (who often insists on his/her own freedom from any kind of communal prejudice) to both exercise class prejudice, while holding on to a liberal self-image.
But as recent elections should have demonstrated to the Congress, this celebrity status is not likely to translate into votes for the party on a pan-India scale, and certainly not in the sorts of numbers needed for the party to garner more than the 140-150 seats (out of 545 in the Lok Sabha) that it currently has, and seems likely to get in this year's elections. Indeed, the states where the Congress is robust are states where the party has relatively healthy grassroots-level party structures, leaders who have come to prominence away from the dynasty's shadow -- leaders such as Sheila Dixit in Delhi, Rajshekhara Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, and even Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh. And, at the national level, Manmohan Singh (i.e. the man in his own right, as opposed to as a "stand-in" for the family, keeping the seat warm for Rahul Gandhi's eventual ascension), or Chidambaram. A strategy based on these sorts of political figures (irrespective of what one makes of any of them) would, in short, be one that eschews cheap glamor in favor of the messy, difficult, yet far more healthy and sustainable, work of building and nurturing party structures. There are no signs that the Congress is going to go down this road: on the contrary, non-dynasty figures who become too big are cut down to size (a lost election in Madhya Pradesh was the excuse where Digvijay Singh is concerned, though the same has never cost sycophants for the dynasty anything; corruption was the excuse where Narsimha Rao was concerned, but it is hard to mollify the suspicion that it was precisely his ability to serve a full term as Prime Minister without any backing from the family (still understandably shell-shocked by Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, but increasingly sidelined by Rao), that cost him. Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi goes around the country mouthing banalities about the need for getting "the young generation" involved in politics. I do not question his sincerity, or even what appears to be his decency -- but I do question the party structure that makes him possible.
But perhaps the Congress secretly realizes that Rahul Gandhi cannot get them to the finish line; if it genuinely believed that Rahul could, does anyone believe he wouldn't be the PM candidate? Of course not: it seems absurd to argue that Omar Abdullah is ready to be Chief Minister of Kashmir, but that Rahul Gandhi needs to bide his time. [The other, more disquieting, possibility is that after Sonia Gandhi's 2004 post-election stroke of genius in denying herself the Prime Ministerial seat (and the BJP a permanent issue against the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi), the family is showing an increasing taste for political power that is unelected and unaccountable.]
Ramachandra Guha has a relevant piece on the Congress, using the 1967 elections as a harbinger of things to come, in the latest Outlook (if you try and access this more than a week later, you'll need to be registered on the site).