The newly minted Congress Party vice president Rahul Gandhi’s speech is being widely applauded in India for the authenticity of its content. Many commentators are saying that with this once speech he has proved that he is not some disengaged scion of the country’s most celebrated and reviled political royalty.
When it comes to making speeches, the bar has been set so low in Gandhi’s case that he makes one at all is cause enough for jubilation among some people. By that standard not only did he cross that bar but virtually breached all barriers of oratory. I have a somewhat different perspective on political speeches generally and this one particularly.
The broad theme of Gandhi’s speech was a sense of alienation and frustration among Indians that those in government and positions of power simply do not respond to ordinary people’s concerns. It was a sensible theme which is also timeless in India because at any given time in the last six decades that characterization would have been accurate. To that extent Gandhi was not saying anything that no one would dare say. His father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, pretty much said the same thing in 1985 when he was finding his political moorings.
“The voices of a billion Indians are today telling us that they want a greater say in government, in politics and in administration. They are telling us that the course of their lives cannot be decided by a handful of people behind closed doors who are not fully accountable to them. They are telling us that India’s governmental system is stuck in the past. It has become a system that robs people of their voice, a system that disempowers instead of empowering,” Rahul said.
“No matter what state you look at, no matter which political party you look at why do a handful of people control the entire political space? Power is grossly centralized in our country. We only empower people at the top of a system. We don’t believe in empowering people all the way to bottom,” Gandhi added.
All perfectly valid and thoughtful points except that there is a problem. He embodies the very system he so damns. In his defense though he has said so as much, perhaps not as clearly as I am saying it. To his point that things are decided by “a handful of people behind closed doors”, I would point out without any irony at all that his own rise as his party’s vice president is an example of what he is saying. I am sure there was an appearance of consensus building among senior Congress Party leaders that preceded his anointment as number 2 behind his mother, party president Sonia Gandhi. However, it is hard to dispel the impression that the original decision to make him number 2 was essentially hers with his consent.
Perhaps the more credible way to counter the menace of centralization in the particular party context of the party would have been to appoint number 2 someone who was not from the same family as its president. After all, there are other young leaders in the similar age group in the party as well. However, that is a minor point in the scheme of things. It is undeniable that the Gandhi family name does enjoy a unique political brand recognition and political parties are nothing if they are not about making the most of what works.
That said, my broader objection to the tone of the speech has to do with the approach where the one making it makes it appear as if he is talking about a system from which he is as cut off and alienated as ordinary Indians whom he seeks to empower. That is simply not true. I like the way politicians around the world talk about the ills of their own profession as is they are talking about something totally unconnected.
As he embarks on a trajectory which will likely take him to becoming India’s prime minister as early as in 2014 I think the nation should hold him to his words. He also said this: “Every single day, I meet people who have tremendous understanding, deep insight and no voice. And all of us meet them. They are everywhere. But almost always they are kept outside our systems. No one can hear their voice. No matter how much they try to speak no one listens. And then I meet people holding high positions with tremendous voice but with no understanding for the issues at hand.
Why does this happen? It happens because we don’t respect knowledge. We respect position. And it does not matter how much wisdom you have, if you do not have a position, you mean nothing.
This is the tragedy of India.”
I am perfectly willing to put aside my reflexive cynicism and say that perhaps India can give Rahul and young politicians like him across the political spectrum an opportunity to chart a new course. I am equally willing to be optimistic that he would put in action what he has put in words. This is my caveat free optimism.