Delhi is aswirl with conspiracy theories surrounding Rahul Gandhi's dismal performance in his maiden TV interview. Here's a new one: perhaps his minders wrongly supplied the Congress heir apparent with an unused draft of a 2004 Vision Document. Because 10 years ago, as a party emerging from almost a decade in the Opposition, Gandhi's impassioned call for a more democratic, less centralised politics would have held far greater resonance, as would his attempts to position himself as the perennial outsider. But to counter questions in 2014, after two decades in power with empty buzzwords such as "empowerment" and "change the system" seems bizarre, not least because Gandhi has consolidated his position as the party's de jure number two, but also because some of those Big Ideas have found their way into the political mainstream. The arrival of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), for instance, has given a hollow ring to Gandhi's perpetual grouse against the closed nature of candidate selection. The Congress went into the Delhi elections with all 43 sitting MLAs, losing to a party that gave tickets to, among others, a mithai shop owner, a statue-maker, and a residents welfare association co-ordinator.
It could still be argued that this "sin" of cronyism in ticket distribution is not unique to the Congress, and that as a political debutante AAP has advantages that older parties would not. But the Congress is near-isolated in its sitting out of a much-deeper democratising trend that has come to define political conversation over the past decade: the tilt in balance of power away from the Centre, towards more empowered, quasi-autonomous chief ministers, locked in intense competition over their track record of governance.
It is no coincidence that the Congress has been absent in the pioneering of this state-centric, governance-centric shift, for which Narendra Modi, with characteristic modesty, has claimed credit. This would be unfair to Chandrababu Naidu, whose blend of progressive economics - the investor roadshows, the IT-isation of Hyderabad - and of heavily-branded government schemes, such as Janmabhoomi, the delivery of government services to the doorstep, were exciting the national imagination at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s current prime ministerial candidate was still a party apparatchik. Modi deserves credit, however, as the first chief minister of a national party to sight the twin potential of the Naidu model as a possible antidote to the incumbency jinx at the state level, and a springboard to the national stage. The BJP, in turn, deserves credit for allowing Modi, and indeed its other chief ministers to promote themselves (with varying degrees of bombast) as quasi-autonomous, high-performing administrators, allowing the winner of that churn, as opposed to their fractious national leadership, to emerge as the emphatic choice for the top job in 2014.
Some could argue that this churn hews closest to Gandhi's idea of decentralised governance, and of national leadership emerging through US-style primaries. Gandhi would baulk at the suggestion - he described Modi's rise as anti-democratic, and the result of bogus marketing. "Haircuts to the bald," as he put it. There is certainly unease even within the BJP about Modi's authoritarianism, but the Congress is hardly well placed to deliver homilies on the concentration of power (as for the concern about PR hard sell, perhaps the Congress' reported Rs 500-crore publicity war chest could level the field a bit). Here are some rhetorical questions for Gandhi: how often have we heard the Congress leadership lavish fulsome, sustained praise on its better-performing chief ministers, in the manner of the BJP? Why, for instance, was no such praise reserved for Sheila Dikshit at any point during her three terms as chief minister? Why didn't those three successive wins make her a natural counter to the Modi spin machine? What does this lack of incentivisation of good governance (or at least successive wins) signal to other chief ministers? Would Ashok Gehlot, who even his critics concede was nowhere as incompetent a chief minister as the results suggest, have done reasonably better if he was empowered to promote his achievements? And, have the top brass talk him up at all times?
Instead, we have, as the Congress' salutary nod to democratised decision making, the hasty announcement of primaries to select candidates in 14 low-stakes Lok Sabha seats (the last minute inclusion of two seats from Delhi were hastily rolled back after protests from their VIP occupants). And as empowerment, we have Gandhi's forceful reiteration of centrally determined entitlement schemes: the food security Bill, MGNREGA and so on. This is not the space to get into the entitlement versus empowerment debate. But suffice to say that the Congress hyperbole about the game-changing nature of these programmes would be much more convincing if the Congress-run states had taken the lead in fixing the pipelines needed to make these schemes function. That is far from the case. When it comes to, say, reforming the Public Distribution System (PDS), without which the increased entitlements of the food security Bill are meaningless, the best track record is held by non-Congress states. Tamil Nadu was among the pioneers of PDS reform, Chhattisgarh is the new success story.
Gandhi says this election is a battle of ideas, and he's not far off the mark. Except some of those ideas, of empowerment, of decentralised power, of democratisation of political parties, are not, as he imagines, abstractions waiting to be conjured into life. Many of them are already in play, by his rivals, and some of them, for all their imperfections, are working. The Congress vice-president, as he finally emerges from his shell, needs to speak from a script more attuned to the realities of 2014, not 2004.