Since we now know beyond doubt that "system" and "empowerment" are the favourite words in Rahul Gandhi’s political lexicon, one must ask just when the Congress vice-president will walk the talk.
There is a serious danger that unless backed by disruptive energy and concrete new ideas his well-meaning proclamations will soon be caricatured as yawn-inducing abstractions — more platitudinous than political; more pious than practical.
Many of his formulations evoke the memory of a quintessential school assembly speech — full of wholesome and noble thoughts — but unexciting and somewhat preachy.
The problem is not that there is disagreement with what he says; the problem is it’s all been heard before — from him — and there is still no visible movement from words to action. In the meantime, other parties, including a newbie like the Aam Aadmi Party, have already done much better at smashing the status quo.
Newspaper archives give you a good sense of why Gandhi’s avowal to bring radical change is greeted with a sense of disbelief and sometimes, even ridicule. It was in March 2008, almost six years ago, that he first declared that there was "practically no internal democracy in any party, be it Congress, BJP or any other."
Then too, he promised an overhaul of the party through ideas that he claimed he would "disclose at the right time".
Then too, comparisons were drawn to his father’s speech at the centenary session of the Congress in 1985 when Rajiv Gandhi went for the jugular of his own party in declaring that Congress workers were being disabled by "the brokers of power and influence who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy."
From 1985 to 2008, from 2008-2014, the distance covered from rhetoric to reality may not even measure a mile.
Several years after his first warning of a dramatic change in the institutional structures of his party, Rahul Gandhi was forced to merely repeat himself in the aftermath of the assembly elections drubbing in December. Once again he promised to change the Congress in "ways that you can’t even imagine".
At his speech to the All India Congress Committee (AICC) on January 17 giving the party worker a voice in the decision-making process was one of his abiding themes, much like his father had promised several decades ago.
But quite apart from the sense of déjà vu in these speeches, Rahul Gandhi seemed unmindful of the irony when he attacked the BJP for being a party that had handed over structures of power to "one man".
Among the several criticisms that could be levelled against his principal challenger, this remark about Narendra Modi was the weakest because of whom it came from. It was designed to boomerang.
After all, could a ‘one-family party’ effectively attack a ‘one-man party’? Moreover, given that Rahul Gandhi’s solo interventions — from ordinances to gas cylinders — have pretty much bypassed all decision-making bodies within the Congress, can he really be the one to complain about the disproportionate influence of an individual?
If Rahul’s AICC speech on "opening up the system" was to have any real meaning, he should have announced internal elections for the party. The Youth Congress experiment with democracy can no longer be a cover for the absence of elections in the main party since the 1970s.
The one brave and concrete idea to emerge from the session was the decision to hold primaries modelled on the US system in 16 Lok Sabha seats. But look at what has happened since.
The Twitter feed of the Congress initially included two parliamentary seats of Delhi, presently represented by Union ministers Kapil Sibal and Krishna Tirath among those constituencies that would now conduct a bottom-up election process in voting for their candidates in 2014.
The messaging was clear; there were important lessons to be learnt from the Delhi debacle and ministers’ seats would not be no-go areas. But the morning after, a question mark hung over the finality of the announcement with reports that the ‘high command’ may overrule the inclusion of these seats.
In other words, the khaas aadmi could yet be excluded from the Congress’ belated attempt to involve the aam aadmi in the decision-making process of candidate selection. To top it all, the very phrase — ‘the high command’ — is anachronistic and anti-democratic. Yet, it is an unquestioned reference in the party, used almost reverentially to explain a host of decisions, including the selection of chief ministers.
Dynasty is the most damaging drawback to Rahul Gandhi’s claim of being an agent of change. As long as he remains a political inheritor, he will remain the ultimate insider — the very symbol of everything he argues against.
Even shrugging off the old cobwebs and infusing new blood into the body politic of the Congress won’t do the trick in a party where on last count all 11 Congress MPs under 35 were ‘hereditary’ parliamentarians. It is not as if dynasty doesn’t plague other parties, including BJP allies like the Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena.
But on the national stage, even with his renewed Garibi Hatao positioning, Rahul Gandhi comes across as a person of privilege in comparison to the self-made rise of a Narendra Modi or an Arvind Kejriwal.
Besides, if he really wants to be a rebel and not an ‘insider’ seeking to play ‘outsider’, Rahul Gandhi should announce elections to the party’s top posts, after excluding himself from the race both for the plum jobs within and as a possible PM contender.
That abdication is the only way he can shrug off the essential paradox of his politics.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal