Rahul Gandhi, heir to the leadership of the Congress Party and maybe to the job of Indian prime minister, has dreams. Today he tried to spell them out for the first time to a large conference of businessmen, who knew he was breaking away from his usual political meetings and were indulgent and even captivated as he occupied the stage for about 70 minutes.
He had two main messages in a slightly disjointed speech and then two long rambling answers as he walked around the stage at the Confederation of Indian Industry annual conference.
One was that India’s future lay in taking politics down to the pradhans (village headmen) to give “a billion people the power to solve the problems” and facilitate development.
The other was that India was a “beehive” of voices and energy that excelled at managing complexities. “You are of the masters of complexities. Dealing with your business, your interactions with India and abroad gives you the power to conquer the world,” he said.
The instant view from an audience that had enjoyed Gandhi’s adlibbing was that he had done well, and some thought they saw leadership qualities. But as people chatted later, criticisms began to emerge about the lack of enough discussion of individual issues. He had set out his vision of a new India with devolved political power, better motivated people, and better roads, ports and education, but he now needed to talk about how these things will be achieved.
Gandhi is starting from a very low base in his current bid to win public acceptability. He has stayed largely invisible and silent for most of the nine years that he has been a member of parliament, and has created endless confusion about whether he wants to be prime minister or even a politician. That low base made it easy for today’s audience to be impressed by his freewheeling style and by what he said, which was sincere though sometimes naïve, laced with a few stories, some rather odd. This would all be fine if he was just starting out, say in his late 20s. But he is now 43, and vice president of the Congress, so should have gone further – for example having an answer to a question he was asked about water shortages and contamination. He should also have discussed how local empowerment could be achieved – by him, or whoever.
His two themes enabled him to dispel any idea that, as a dynastic heir, he could suddenly wipe away India’s problems – and also that Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Gujarat chief minister and Congress’s main adversary for the next general election, could not do so either.
“Give me all the power you want – give one individual all the power you want, give him everything, he cannot solve the problems of a billion people,” he said. Knowing that Modi has strong (and financial) backing from businessmen, Gandhi told his CII audience, “If you think there is a guy who will come on a horse charging through and set everything right, this is not going to happen”. Focussing again on Modi, who is a divisive politician, but without naming him, Gandhi added that it took a long time to reverse seeds of disharmony. “Anger, hatred and prejudice do not contribute to growth”.
Gandhi has travelled extensively across the country, including visits to poor rural and urban areas, and he has correctly identified the dynamism and ambitions that are waiting to be released. “Millions of Indians are brimming with energy”, he said. Talking about ambitious poor people he had met on a train to Mumbai looking for work, he added, “We are now sitting on an unprecedented tide of transformation. This tremendous movement of people and ideas are going to define this country in the 21st century”.
Mixing his metaphors to explain problems caused by the exclusion of marginalised groups such as the poor he said that “A rising tide doesn’t raise people who don’t have a boat. We have to build the boat for them. We have to give them the basic infrastructure to rise with the tide.”
He also had a swipe at China, suggesting it was a simple straightforward country compared with India’s beehive. “China is referred to as the ‘dragon’ and India as an ‘elephant’. But we are not an elephant, we are a ‘beehive’,” he said. The problem was that, unlike a “beehive which gives every member a voice”, India was “clogged” and the voices of most people were not heard – which brought him back to his empowerment theme.
This was all fine, but India has no shortage of such dreams and even policies. The problem is implementation of what everyone knows needs to be done and, on that, Gandhi had nothing to say apart from devolution to a billion-plus people via village headmen.
So he needs to go further next time – hopefully soon. Then perhaps people will stop saying Rajiv Gandhi (his father) when they mean Rahul, a mistake that happened twice today, once by the conference manager before he entered the hall, and once by the CII’s new president, Kris Gopalakrishnan of Infosys, in the vote of thanks.