The political cycle is an unforgiving beast. Barely three years ago, right after the 2009 general elections in which the Congress-led UPA was re-elected to power, Rahul Gandhi was being hailed as the modern-day Chanakya of politics. And not just by Congress sycophants either.
Media accounts hailed him as "the quiet revolutionary", the man who was on a mission to "democratise" the dynasty-obsessed Congress and "drive it to a new tomorrow", and the political scion who brings youth appeal to politics. Suddenly, commentators realised he was "no more a political 'Pappu'".
Young MPs like Jyotiraditya Scindia were calling for Rahul Gandhi to take up the Prime Ministership. And although Rahul Gandhi declined it, citing his lack of experience and his keenness to harness youth power in politics, his political clout grew in the months that followed.
Congress leaders saw 'RG', as he was known, as the pivot of a new power centre, and were queuing up outside his 12, Tughlak Lane residence in New Delhi. Rahul Gandhi, it was said, was actively involved in everything - "from deciding policies on climate change to the selection of candidates for elections, and even in deciding chief ministers and the new Cabinet."
But in the past three years, the tide of political opinion has turned so comprehensively against Rahul Gandhi - to the point where even Congressmen are beginning to acknowledge his failings. Going by Salman Khurshid's brutally honest assessment of Rahul Gandhi's failure to articulate a political vision and his reluctance to step up and take charge, Congressmen see a very different person in him.
How did this dramatic transformation come about? How did Rahul Gandhi so comprehensively lose the political plot?
Some of this turnaround is of course attributable to the vicissitudes of electoral politics, where nothing succeeds like success. Even as far back as in 2007, Rahul Gandhi was being dismissed as a political lightweight, but the UPA's re-election in 2009, which was attributed to his exertions to re-energise the party, changed all that.
But in politics, you are only as good as your last victory - or, more appropriately, as bad as your last defeat. Since 2009, Rahul Gandhi has had precious little to show by way of electoral success. His much-hyped charge in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, which were projected as a way for him to trace a path to the Prime Ministership, proved a spectacular failure. The Congress increased its vote share, but finished fourth in terms of its seat tally.
The language of Salman Khurshid's criticism of Rahul Gandhi, and his trenchant view on the state of the Congress, is striking for one thing: it is replete with all kinds of theatrical imagery. ("We have only see cameos of (Rahul Gandhi's) thoughts and ideas," Khurshid said. "The political props have got mixed up... The problem with mixed-up props is that you know the lines but you suddenly realise that things around you are not the same.... The stage has to be set up again and only the Congress president can do it.")
The metaphor of politics as theatre isn't entirely misplaced, of course. The grandstanding that we often see from political leaders shows them up as performers who are playing their bit roles and marking their fretful hour on the stage.
But with Rahul Gandhi, for all the bluster that he brought to his political campaigns - theatrically tearing up the Samajwadi Party manifesto, for instance - his heart never appeared to be in it. As I had noted earlier (here), "there is a certain awkward tentativeness about him that reflects a man riddled with self-doubt. It’s almost as if he knows he is faking it, but has allowed himself to believe the “Rahul chalisa” chants of the dynasty’s ‘psycophants’ and come to accept that, yes, he is to the (political) manor born, and that the country yearns for his leadership."
It needed a sudden attack of conscience from Salman Khurshid to point out what had been blindingly obvious for long: that Rahul Gandhi is an "empty suit", a yuvraj who has no clothes on.
But even while he blew the whistle and called out Rahul Gandhi, Khurshid wanted him to step up and take over the leadership. Which just goes to show that even in rare moments of candour, the dynasty worshipping instinct kicks in among Congressmen.
But perhaps that's not a bad idea after all. With his political exertions thus far, Rahul Gandhi has proved to be a rotten brand ambassador for the political dynasty. Leave him to it, and he can perhaps finish the job of undoing the dynasty for good. In doing that, he will be doing the Congress - and India - a good turn.