A churning has begun in the Congress about the suitability of Rahul Gandhi as its future leader. In the long run, circumstances permitting, it may well pave the way for a reorganisation of the party and its structure.
The leadership question has been brought into focus once again with party veteran Digvijaya Singh's statement that Rahul Gandhi lacks the temperament to rule. It is possible, as Singh has clarified, that he meant that Rahul Gandhi did not hanker after power and that he was more interested in fighting against social injustice.
Rahul Gandhi's speech at Jaipur in January last year, about power being poison, had clearly indicated his perception of power. His aversion to political power was also obvious in his refusal to join the Manmohan Singh government. Digvijaya Singh's statement, therefore, was unlikely to have been taken by several party men as something other than a well-known truth.
Since it is the prospect of power that brings a majority of Congressmen to the party, they would see Rahul Gandhi's failure not as moral one-upmanship, but as a lack of effective leadership. They may be apprehensive of continuing to prop him up as self-defeating.
The resentment against Rahul Gandhi's dismal political record has been brewing in the party for quite some time. Someone has sought to blame his advisors for the party's election debacle, a dejected party leader called him a "joker" and yet another dubbed him the "MD of a team of jokers". Most have been punished for the blasphemy.
Coming after these developments, Digvijaya Singh's statement was bound to be seen questioning the leadership of the party vice-president once again. Not surprisingly, family loyalists have gone into a defensive mode claiming that the young Gandhi had all the "attributes" of a "genuine" leader. Yet, Rahul's actions are unlikely to allay fears about his leadership. A good leader does not desert his party when it is demoralised. But by refusing to lead the party in Parliament, that is what Rahul Gandhi has done.
Rahul Gandhi's campaign was about youth and forward-looking politics. Mallikarjun Kharge, who has been made Parliamentary leader in the Lok Sabha, is neither young nor forward-looking. He is not an effective speaker and will suffer from a linguistic disability given the presence of a large number of Bharatiya Janata Party MPs from the Hindi heartland. Someone like Jyotiraditya Scindia could fit the bill perfectly, but the family has always shown a preference for non-threatening leaders - from Shivraj Patil and Manmohan Singh earlier to Kharge now.
If it is beneath the dignity of young Gandhi to lead a party depleted in parliamentary strength, then people are bound to draw the conclusion that the family is there only to enjoy the fruits of victory, however much they may speak of the "poison of power".
His absence was palpable when the party was discussing the fate of its chief ministers in the two states going into elections, Maharashtra and Haryana, and in Assam. His views on whether Messrs Prithivraj Chavan, Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Tarun Gogoi should continue as chief ministers are not known. The permanent chair of the committee-for-what-went-wrong, A K Antony, is left to conduct a post-mortem of the election debacle, with Rahul Gandhi gallivanting abroad. Except for a few months before an election - no one knows where he goes or what he does.
At a time when the political stakes of the Congress have shrunk both in Parliament and in the states, he should be concentrating full-time on the job he has committed to - putting the broken party structure together, touring the country, and reorganising state units. Indian politics does not allow flexitime. Leave alone the temperament to rule, he has not shown a temperament for hard work either.
The attitude of the Congress seems to be to wait for the Narendra Modi government to make mistakes and create a political opening for them to step in to garner the public disenchantment. Instead, they should be creating that opening by leading agitations against price rise, railway fare hike, mishandling of the appointment of judges of the Supreme Court, the Delhi University imbroglio and the lack of transparency in governance.
No party has any use for a leader who is neither motivated, nor decisive or hard-working. The young Gandhi is not an effective public speaker and he does not engage with issues consistently - tearing up a controversial Ordinance in a press conference does not count as engagement with issues of national importance, considering that he had not weighed against it earlier.
Objective conditions may arise eventually for the party to make a bid for political power in the future. When the favourable wind blows, however, it will need a leader or leaders who can pull up the sails and exploit that situation to the party's advantage with an effective public campaign.
As of now, the critical voices within the Congress are trying to rejig the system instead of changing it - trying to persuade party president Sonia Gandhi to assume a larger role or induct Priyanka Gandhi into the party.
However, the state Assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra by the year-end in all likelihood would see the party's fortunes plummet further. That could further marginalise the family's role. Only when that happens will rethinking begin in the party.
The new party, if political circumstances permit its emergence at all, will be put together by the regional leaders who retain influence in their respective states and do not see political power as poison, but as a creative force in a democracy. It would be left to them to put together a new party, because only they would have some pockets of influence left in their respective states. They might have the option of merging with existing outfits - a losing proposition which relegates them to secondary roles - or come together and structure a new party somewhat like the Congress ideologically and programmatically, but without the family as its focus. Things will have to get much worse for the Congress, before they get any better.
The writer is a journalist based in Delhi