An ambiguous assent by Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi to a "larger role" has sent his party into a state of hyperventilating excitement. While no one quite knows what the statement means yet - a ministry, responsibility for a specific state or a special post in the organisational hierarchy - media fantasists are already salivating over the prospect of a gladiatorial contest in 2014. According to one theory - a favourite with headline hunters - now that Rahul Gandhi has revealed his readiness to paint on the national canvas, the BJP will be forced to unveil its own portrait of leadership. In this scenario of a personality collision, the forecast is for a Gandhi versus Modi battle. Acolytes of Narendra Modi argue that notwithstanding the long shadow of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots - repeated electoral successes in Gujarat and an unapologetic individualism of style - make him the perfect contender.
The war-gaming for the 2014 battle is interesting, but well off the mark. There are multiple assumptions behind this imagined clash and many of them fail to recognise the shifting sands of a changing polity. First, the debate is less about what results such a contest would throw up and more around whether there would be such an electoral clash at all. For entirely differing reasons, I don't believe either of the politicians in question will end up being their party's prime ministerial nominees - at least not in this coming election.
In Gandhi's case the clamour from party workers to lead the campaign in 2014 will be intense. But Gandhi gambled on leaving his own signature on the Congress campaign in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections and, thus, had to sign off on its failure as well. A tottering organisational structure on the ground, faulty choices in candidate selection and the failure to pitch the party as a viable alternative to Mayawati - all rendered his high-voltage campaign ineffectual. A crucial mistake was to not commit himself to being the state's chief ministerial candidate - something he was apparently keen to do, till a nervous party dissuaded him. The electoral results may not have been very different, but it would have lent a greater seriousness of purpose to his political rhetoric. Instead, the big bang aggression of him rolling up his sleeves and tearing up the Samajwadi Party manifesto ended in a whimper, when Mulayam Singh Yadav ended up taking pride of place at the dinner to mark three years of the UPA government.
As the Congress enters election season - withered from controversy, corruption, a shabby governance record and ideological disarray - Rahul Gandhi can hardly hope for there to be any building blocks in place for his climb to the top. To declare him a nominee for a campaign that will be fought in an environment of intense anti-incumbency may be to script failure before the exam is even written. With status-quoist instincts advising caution, the Congress would want to avoid an Uttar Pradesh-like gamble on a national scale.
In Narendra Modi's case the obstacles are rather different. The Gujarat chief minister is hardly famous for self-doubt. Successive electoral victories, the support of many corporate chieftains fawning over him and the organised cheering of online storm-troopers may well have convinced Modi of his own invincibility. Recent victories - like the forced ouster of RSS bête noire Sanjay Joshi - have underscored the fearful, if sometimes reluctant, backing he gets within his own party. The circumstances in which the patch-up between Modi and BJP president Nitin Gadkari took place reveal the party's absolute dependency on him, even if several second generation leaders privately balk at what they call his arrogance. Yet, ironically, the very thing that makes Modi so strong - his influence as a powerful regional leader - will also ensure that other satraps like him could successfully block his ascendancy on the stairway to New Delhi. The frontal assault on him by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar - who wants a "secular face" to lead the campaign in 2014 - is evidence that Modi's instinctive unilateralism may make him the Master of Gujarat, but outside of the state no other strong politician will be ready to play Minion. The inability to be a consensus-builder and the unwillingness to display compassion and regret for the 2002 riots will mean that Modi's fiefdom can't grow into an Empire.
The BJP-led NDA governs nine states in India today, but in this Club of provincial leaders it is yet to find a First among Equals. The Congress knows who its leader is - but that doesn't increase the chances of success. Truth is - both national parties are in crisis mode. A fractured polity, a cynical electorate and a failure to inspire or generate Hope has made the Pan-Indian leader a near-extinct species. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee - were all examples of individuals who could bring a country together. Vajpayee was perhaps the last such Pan-Indian personality in contemporary politics, which explains why after years of being out of the public eye, he still does so well in all polls on prime ministerial favourites.
In other words, even if 2014 were to see a direct contest between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi - which is extremely unlikely - personalities no longer have the charisma or depth to define the heft of national politics. In the absence of a galvanising force around which a new idiom of politics can be written, 2014 will commemorate the Age of the Chief Minister - making the business of finding a prime minister an extremely complicated one. Just this week, Sharad Pawar has reminded the Congress that nine members of Parliament are enough to send an elected government into a tizzy. Unless there is a cataclysmic event or a new star that emerges on the firmament it is the states that will run New Delhi.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal