Rahul Gandhi (Pic: Grab from CII video)
First, let me make an observation about the timbre of Rahul Gandhi’s voice. It is caught in the triad of voices of Sachin Tendulkar, Natwar Singh and Swapan Dasgupta.*
It is the kind of voice that is hard to pay attention to but once you manage to get past its high register, there is substance to be found. This is such a narrow and specific , not to mention superficial, way to approach what is probably Gandhi’s most politically defining public speech and discourse.
It can now be said that the 42-year-old Gandhi, who has been projected by certain political quarters to be India’s prime minister-in-waiting since the immediate aftermath of his father Rajiv’s assassination in 1991, is fully out as a politician. He engaged himself in an hour-long speech and question and answer session at the annual general meeting of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) today.
The political takeaway from the speech is that he would do whatever fait accompli his political DNA has presented him with. The philosophical takeaway from it is that he would rather be one of a billion plus Indians than the first among a billion plus Indians. Here is a young man all too aware of history riding on his shoulders and nearly feeling guilty about his emphatically illustrious political lineage. As a great grandson, grandson and son of three prime ministers, it is almost as if Rahul was handed a career path inside an ornately sealed envelop on a red satin covered cushion. All that he had to do was open the envelop and say yes in humility.
Of course, he could have always declined and chosen something else. Given his family background though, I would not be so ridiculous as to suggest that he could have set up a bicycle repair shop or a roadside dhaba. The point is it may have appeared obligatory for him to choose the life of a politician who would do his best to pretend that he would not end up in the South Block**, but it was not necessarily so. He did indeed make that choice himself even if it meant struggling everyday with the easy gift of near unbridled power that came with it for him in particular. Before I drift away into the polemics of India’s feudal politics, let me stop myself.
The basic point of today’s post is how Rahul views India and the future of a billion plus Indians. It is obvious that he rejects what he believes has come to be some sort of a savior-led “Indian model” of governance. In his own words it is something like this: “He (the savior) is going to come on a horse. The sun is in the background. There are a billion people waiting. He is coming in. And everything is going to be nice. No it does not work like that.” No, indeed it does not work like that. Incidentally, who with a reasonably functioning brain believes it works like that?
For his part,Rahul repeatedly said during the CII meeting that he is doing his bit to ensure that the voice of a billion plus people is heard in everything India does. Asserting his own individual irrelevance Rahul spoke in detail about the disconnect between the voice of a billion people and a couple of hundred people in the main political parties deciding the destiny of the country. “The legislative engine in India is basically 5,000 people,” Rahul said speaking of all the members of India’s parliament and state legislatures. He pointed out that who those 5000 people will be is, in turn, decided by a couple of hundred people in these parties. His main thrust was that rather than continuing a system that perpetuates this limited legislative engine, it is time to empower the entire billion plus population.
“Give one individual all the power you want. Give him everything. He cannot solve the problems of a billion people,” he said and added, “Give a billion people the power to solve their problems, it will be done immediately.”
Gandhi also addressed the frequently drawn comparison between China as the dragon and India as the elephant and said he considers India a beehive. In an unusually sharp public reference he dismissed China as a centralized system without any complexity as opposed to India which is full of complexity that might engender daily frustrations but wields great global soft power.
The choice of the captains of industry as his audience was necessary for him to be able to indulge in grand themes such as compassion on the philosophical side and structural inadequacies in India’s polity on the practical side. He also made it a point to talk about how India’s political structure pivots around national and state level lawmakers when for it to be effective it ought to facilitate village level decision-making. This was one of his father Rajiv’s favorite political themes.
Rahul’s outing was politically important because it presented a counter to some very high profile recent public engagements by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi who is being increasingly seen as the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate. The two men are separated by 20 years and conflicting political ideologies. In a country where 550 million people are below the age group 25-35, it is remarkable that there could be a genuine contest between one who is 42 years old and the other who is 62. That is as much a tribute to Modi’s fiercely ambitious approach to politics of a man who has no political lineage to draw on as to Rahul who grew up in the shadow of some of the country’s most illustrious political names. One wants to grab what life is offering him while the other wants to pick and choose and contemplate.
If the two men do eventually get nominated by their respective parties and political coalitions as their prime ministerial candidates, I think they would present the sharpest political contrast that India’s electorate has ever had.
On a related note, I find it amusing how politicians, including Rahul, talk about the problem of centralization of political power in a handful of people as outsiders. The reality is that they are the very definition of insiders. I am willing to wait and see how he goes about transforming decades-old entrenched political equations to realize his own vision of empowering a billion plus people.
* Tendulkar is a cricketer, Singh is a politician and Dasgupta is a political commentator.
** The South Block is where the office of India’s prime minister is situated in Delhi.