Barely had the news about Rahul Gandhi being named the Congress vice-president become public that there was an explosion of mockery, online as well as offline. A BJP spokesman, after first saying it was an internal matter of the Congress, could not resist calling it an eyewash. It was not clear what he meant, because there was nothing clandestine about the nomination, nor was the Congress trying to hide anything. If anything, it finally ends speculation about the young Gandhi's exact designation and role in the party. In any case, it is the BJP that has to now address some inconvenient questions about a second term for Nitin Gadkari, who is facing serious charges about his involvement with the Purti group.
The online community was even more sceptical. Frivolity is often the default tone of those who spend a lot of time on social media, commenting on anything and everything. Young twitterati has no time for politicians and vacillates between outrage and ridicule. To them, Rahul Gandhi appears to be an ineffective leader, at best brimming with good intentions, perhaps but not necessarily bursting with great, path-breaking ideas. This perception feeds upon itself till it assumes axiomatic status. In any case, the online universe lives off the headlines so it soon will move on to other things.
But, predictable or not, this elevation is a significant step for the Congress whose impact will go beyond the party. Not only does it give Rahul Gandhi an important say in the way the party will approach the next general elections, it also has the potential to structurally change the organisation.
Rahul Gandhi was seen as a reluctant prince, who had any job within the party or the government for the asking. That he was the heir apparent was not in doubt. The Gandhis do not play second fiddle and barring Indira Gandhi, who was the minister of information and broadcasting under Lal Bahadur Shastri, the others have been prime minister, Congress president or both. There was talk of him taking over rural development or some such ministry that would have a mass connect, but he chose to remain outside the government.
That does not mean he has been idle. He put in motion a plan to restructure the Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India (NSUI), strategised for two elections and travelled all over the country, especially in rural areas, to learn about the problems of ordinary village folk. It is known that he has backed Aadhaar and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) fully and sees great potential in them as game changers for the country and for the party. He wants the Congress to go it alone rather than with allies. Not all his ideas and tactics have succeeded. In Bihar, the Congress paid a heavy price and in Uttar Pradesh, it improved its tally a bit. The Congress, at the Jaipur Chintan Shivir itself made it clear that it was open to allies since it could not hope to win on its own. That is a clear admission that the party does not have the wherewithal to win all over the country on its own steam - indeed, it is doubtful if it will top the 2009 mark of 207 seats.
But Rahul Gandhi may yet have a plan. He definitely hopes to restructure the party - that he made clear in his maiden speech. His own supporters have been talking of bringing in a new culture - that is reminiscent of what his grandmother did when she split the Congress in 1969 and what his father had hoped to do when he set out to finish off the power brokers in 1985. She had succeeded, but he failed and since then all manner of calcified operators have been ruling the roost in the party. Rahul Gandhi will have to work hard and show immense maturity if he wants to get rid of them and bring in young blood in the party and in the list of candidates who will stand on a Congress ticket in 2014. That is a tall order but if he can pull that off and show that his idea works, he will consolidate his place. There will be many people within his own organisation hoping to see him fail.
When his mother took over the party, she was made fun of. His father was laughed at for bringing in a babalog team. His grandmother was called a "goongi gudiya". All of them led the party to victory and were successful leaders. In an age of hyper-communication and sound bites, the silent Rahul Gandhi, who does not offer an opinion on each and every development, has been seen as a total misfit, even ineffectual. He will have to prove that his methods - of quietly working to make things happen and focusing on the more important issues that affect people's lives - are successful. That will have to reflect in the electoral results too. If the party does badly, it will be seen as his failure and his alone.
For the Opposition and the regional parties, it is time now to begin working on their own strategies. The BJP may scoff at Rahul, but it must understand he has the potential to appeal to the youth. The clamour to make Narendra Modi lead the battle will now become louder, though it is doubtful whether he will also be named as a potential prime minister. The regional parties, alert to the willingness of the Congress to seek out allies, will work out their own calculations - even those currently with the NDA or floating independently may not be averse to tying up with the side with the most winning potential. The political season has begun to heat up.
Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and the author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story
The views expressed by the author are personal