Now, the Sonia interregnum having runs its course, the new generation is ready to take over. Rahul's younger sister, Priyanka, proved to be a deft campaigner with a common touch, but she's married with children and retired from politics, at least temporarily. In 2004, Rahul won the family seat in the "Hindi heartland" state of Uttar Pradesh and then quite consciously disappeared into the long-term business of rebuilding the party at the grassroots. He has sought to instill a new spirit of meritocracy and transparency in the Indian Youth Congress, which had come to be viewed as a nest of young (and not-so-young) louts and timeservers.
Rahul is afflicted by an acute awareness of the pathological elements of the Congress party's relationship to his family, even as he tries to exploit that special relationship to change a culture of nepotism, sycophancy, and gross favoritism. It's a very delicate, and possibly paradoxical, enterprise. "I am a symptom of this problem," he admitted bluntly in a 2008 speech. He has turned down a slot in Singh's cabinet and possibly also the chief ministership of Uttar Pradesh and his mother's job. He wants to be a humble worker in the Congress vineyards -- at least until he is ready to fully emerge on the national scene. But the party may not allow him to be, such is the force of that Gandhi cult of personality.
When I think of Rahul's predicament, I'm reminded of a mass audience with J. Krishnamurti, a revered philosopher-guru, then 85, which I attended in Bombay in 1980.
A bright light shone down on a tiny white-haired man on a stage. He said, with an asperity that bordered on bitterness, "You must not seek gurus. You must have the courage to listen to your own voice." And the crowd roared back in unison, "Yes, master! We will follow our own voice!" Followership is a very hard habit to break.
Modi, Rahul's rival for the premiership, suffers from no such ambivalence about authority. He is a fiery orator who knows very well how to hold and keep a crowd. Modi's father sold tea from a cart at a railway station -- as did Modi. Modi is himself the incarnation of the meritocratic principles of which Rahul speaks. He has said, "I am a fish in the sea, while that fellow" -- and everyone knows which fellow -- "is a fish in the aquarium." A son of the soil against a Gandhi scion, a classic strongman against a mild-mannered democrat, a nationalist who plays with fire against a committed secularist: It really would be fun to watch.
Politics in India is a tamasha -- a big, noisy spectacle. But you have to wonder whether voters will begin to tire of it. The small-scale if endemic corruption of yesteryear has inflated to grotesque proportions as national wealth and the national budget have mushroomed. All parties have been tainted; even the currency of the Gandhi family may have been devalued. Changing this culture may be well beyond Rahul's reach. After all, the Congress party has an election to win, and elections require bottomless sums of cash, often ferried in bags and suitcases. India even has a new anti-corruption party -- the Common Man's Party -- but it can't win elections either without black money. Politics in India must change -- but not tomorrow, or anytime soon.