You can frame this question in one of many ways. What has changed fundamentally in politics over the past decade, or what hasn’t? Or, what is it that has changed radically and dramatically, and yet looks like the continuation of an old, familiar pattern? The short answer to this muddled question: dynastic politics.
Put more simply then, dynastic politics is now on the decline, yet the phenomenon has acquired deeper roots. Dynastic hold on India’s politics has declined and grown at the same time. These conflicting political cross-currents have brought about a fundamental shift in our politics. They have hurt the Congress most of all. Ask any Congress leader who contests elections (unlike its star cast of chronic Rajya Sabhaists) and they will admit to you, albeit in whispers and fearfully glancing left and right, that the days when the Gandhi family could win them their seats are over. In the elections, now, it is every man for himself. So those who nurse their constituencies, or have local, caste-based or family vote banks, win their seats. Of course, it helps if the Gandhis visit to campaign as it endorses them within the party. But beyond that, their ability to win seats beyond the Amethi-Rae Bareli enclave has diminished to insignificance.
I asked a senior (and always elected) Congress leader, then why was the Gandhi family still so important and had total sway over the party. He said, surely they cannot help anybody win elections, but they keep the party together. Their word is law and the party needs that discipline. Illustration: the moment Sonia or Rahul says something, everybody nods and falls in line. If Narasimha Rao or Sitaram Kesri said something, everybody broke out in rebellion and rashes.
You have to assess Rahul Gandhi’s recent Jaipur speech in this perspective. It tugged immediately at fellow partymen’s heartstrings, but made little impact beyond. So here is the answer to the first half of our question: the dynasty has become even stronger within the Congress, with not even a whiff of discontent of the kind Nehru (occasionally), Indira (twice and substantively