The public reactions to Rahul Gandhi’s “beehive” speech to the CII last Thursday morning followed a predictable pattern. Those who are naturally charmed by him viewed it as another instance of his well-meaning earnestness; the more sceptical brigade saw it as vague, lacking in specifics and a trifle too anecdotal; and, in private, the stalwarts of Indian business lamented the Congress’ heir apparent’s inability to address any of the problems that have undermined confidence in India’s struggling economy.
The debate over Rahul’s success in rising above the level of a privileged rebel preoccupied with “changing the system, man” (echoes of a previous generation that wanted to break away from the stodgy values of their parents but grew up to embrace the same ethos) will, no doubt, persist until the votes in the general election have been counted. But at least it is reassuring that the Congress vice president has realised that there is more to politics than taking the milk train from Gorakhpur to Mumbai and engaging with fellow passengers.
But not quite. Just as there are party bores who make generalisations about the public mood by speaking to their chauffeur and cook, Rahul’s discovery of the ‘real India’ has involved an over-reliance on anecdotal evidence. Add to that the obsession of wide-eyed MBAs from American universities who believe that success follows the implantation of the right ‘systems’, and you get a picture of the mental map of the 42-year-old man who has been told since childhood that he was born to be King. Just as economists are pretty awful in comprehending the real problems faced by businesses, Rahul’s vision of India is grounded in hands-off detachment.
I may sound cruel but he often reminds me of a mid-level functionary in a multilateral UN agency who wants to encourage ‘good works’ and encourage the ‘empowerment’ of people — but from a distance, from a position of tax-free privilege, and without getting his hands dirty. Politics is essentially about exercising hard (and sometimes unpalatable) decisions with a measure of transparency. Rahul has preferred to bypass real problems and dote on the loftiness of millennium goals. No wonder he has no known views about the fiscal deficit, interest rates, red tape and globalised competition — the problems his audience at the CII summit face in their daily lives.
Even his views on education and skill development are touchingly simple. That the curriculum in many of India’s universities and schools are ridiculously inappropriate hardly needs reiteration. But the conflict between reach, equity and standards that educationists face in their day-to-day operations seem to have escaped his attention. There is unanimity that India needs a big booster of skills enhancement if its economy is to be innovative and competitive. The debate is over the route map. Rajiv Gandhi, to his credit, took the hard decision to create a binary model — a variant of his mother’s thrust on developing many “centres of excellence”. The UPA Government has made a mess of the education sector by seeing education merely as an entitlement but detaching it from the larger process of economic regeneration. The result has been a slow process of dumbing down and the country’s inability to meet the mismatch between market demand and skills availability.
In any case, Rahul’s qualification to hold forth on education is questionable. But as a two-term MP who has been in active politics for nine years, it was revealing that his knowledge of Centre-State relations and the new challenges facing India’s federal structure is so feeble. Encouraging members of the CII to interact with gram pradhans is an interesting version of educational tourism — the type that the limousine liberals do during each election. But the real issues are more contentious. How is the tangle over the Goods and Services Tax to be resolved? How will the growing demand for “special status” by backward States be met within the present federal framework? Is there any role left for a national Planning Commission? Should the philosophy of a redistributive Centre be modified keeping in mind the demise of the licence-permit-quota raj? These were questions that Rahul never addressed. Worse, he didn’t even display any awareness of them.
It is not that people expect Rahul to have ready-made answers to every complex problem. Doctrinaire politicians have invariably done great disservice to their countries, as can be seen from Sonia Gandhi’s over-reliance on the NAC as her in-house think tank. What is expected from an aspirant to the top political job is both a sensitivity towards India’s problems, the display of political will geared towards solving problems and an overall vision. Rahul has so far focussed on the ‘vision thing’ with mixed results.
However, it is reassuring that Rahul has come out of purdah and revealed his mind to the country. The forthcoming general election may appear to be a very messy affair — a reason why the stock markets are running scared. But behind the clutter and the cacophony of sound bites, some clarity is slowly emerging. First, there are reasons to be optimistic that there will be a direct contest between Rahul and Narendra Modi, with others hoping their chance will come in the event of an inconclusive outcome. Secondly, much more than before the battle is likely to centre on divergent perceptions of political priorities and competing visions. In other words, the battle may end up becoming more presidential than local. And, finally, the outcome may well be influenced by the way in which voters perceive their own future and the future of their families.
India is essentially conservative and loathes radical shifts. But there is a simmering anger against a rotten political Establishment. Rahul has gauged this fact and is anxious to project himself as an outsider and rebel. But so for that matter has Modi who has risen from the lowest rung of society. Rahul is blessed with a fierce sense of noblesse oblige and Modi epitomises the aspirations of a young, assertive India. Rahul’s speech clearly demonstrated that these two India think very differently.