Indignant loyalists were quick to detect a "sinister conspiracy" behind a child’s fascination with a slogan he had heard around his mohalla. But few dared to draw the obvious conclusion from the embarrassment: that questions over the Prime Minister’s integrity (badly affected by the Bofors controversy) had become a part of everyday discourse in households.
Last Wednesday, hours after the bomb blast in Delhi High Court, Rahul Gandhi encountered a hostile crowd as he made the mandatory political visit to a hospital. A crowd, waiting anxiously for news of their seriously injured family members, booed the Congress’ heir designate and shouted hostile slogans.
The regime did its utmost to underplay the incident and some TV channels even suggested it was the handiwork of "political activists". But as with the AIR broadcast, the implication of the heckling was glossed over.
That 2011 is fast turning into the UPA government’s annus horribilis is obvious. Yet, the Congress has comforted itself into believing that the steep fall in the government’s popular standing has not rubbed off on Rahul. It has been presumed that the Congress general secretary’s detachment from everyday governance would lead to a situation whereby the dynasty was perceived as the most obvious saviour in the country’s dark hour. The calculation was that any craving for change would be internalized within the ruling establishment.
At the risk of over-reading the implications of the hospital kerfuffle, it would seem that the strategy is not working out. Rahul’s "game changer" speech that he read out to the Lok Sabha last month failed to galvanize India. On the contrary, he was mocked by the pro-Anna Hazare crowd at Ramlila Maidan for his lofty aloofness and his unwillingness to engage with real issues on a sustained basis. At a time when people cried out for upright and deft political management, Rahul cast himself in the role of a not-terribly-profound pontificator.
In just over a fortnight, the popular mood has changed dramatically. Opinion polls that indicated residual faith in the Congress despite fierce dissatisfaction with the government’s performance, are now recording rising support for the opposition and BJP in particular. For the first seven years of his political life, the crown prince was showered with popular (and media) indulgence. They forgave his indiscretions and failures, ignored his all-too-frequent withdrawals into private life, boisterously celebrated his occasional successes and worshipped his ‘potential’, both real and projected. Congress cheerleaders painted him as the "youth icon" and foretold a future dispensation of young inheritors—well-spoken, well-groomed men and women from pedigreed political families, the proverbial babalogs.
The honeymoon seems to be finally over. There are still some 32 months before another general election, and 2014 could miraculously turn into annus mirabilis if a smug BJP decides to fall back on day-before-yesterday’s slogans, techniques and leaders. If Rahul continues to falter, the custodians of dynastic rule may even be inclined to whip out its secret weapon— Priyanka Vadra. In 2011, the plot is still unfolding and the conclusion is still many episodes away.
But 2011 is nevertheless an important landmark. Historians may characterize these turbulent months as the time India shed its deferential submissiveness towards the ‘first family’. The Gandhis will remain the adhesive that joins a disparate Congress family. At the same time, a mood of rebellious individualism is threatening to unsettle the cosy world of entitlement on which dynastic politics rests.
The boy who unsettled the airwaves in the final months of Rajiv Gandhi must be nearing 30. Did he unwittingly kick-start a new age of insolence in which ordinary people can raise their voices and talk back at those who imagine they were born to rule? We live in exciting times.
Sunday Times of India, September 11, 2011