At his first face-to-face interaction with India Inc, Rahul Gandhi was being himself when he walked in with a stubble, crisp white kurta pyjama and a clumsily written speech. He was nervous, a little curious and very idealistic. There was no talk of GDP or economic statistics but plenty of poetry and prose in his one-hour plus interaction on stage. He talked of elephants, dragons, beehives, river streams and energy. No current or capital accounts were discussed but the speech (and later the Q & A) had a deficit of solutions, direction and even a vision.
That’s why I say Rahul Gandhi was being himself. The prepared talk went from skills and social infrastructure to job creation and public private partnership. Nothing new there. Gandhi intertwined these with anecdotes of common people like Girish the carpenter, then a labourer who wanted her child to join the administrative services to make money and a co-passenger in a train. In all his speeches, he tends to use the pivot of a common person’s story, just like he had introduced Kalavati on the floor of the parliament a few years ago. It does touch a chord with people but it also leaves them wondering how the government, how the powers that be are really changing their lives. Isn’t it really easy to discuss the colossal problems we face? Or what happens in the remotest of our country’s villages where drinking water is a boat away? Boats and aircraft featured a lot in his speech. Gandhi discussed stories of how, before people can sail on the boat to growth, those boats need to be created. An analogy for jobs and empowerment, he also emphasized on how we needed to bring minimum standards of growth, livelihood and aspirations to people. But if after 65 years of Independence we are still discussing how to achieve a basic ‘minimum’, are we truly an emerged nation?
Gandhi called India an energy, not people. He said we were about being the collective strength of a beehive and not just the weight of an elephant. He talked about the complexities that India is made up of, where there are multiple questions and almost no perfect answer and how these intricacies are the genius of our lives. How common people across India were optimistic in finding opportunities in the social, political and economic complications of our society.
The return to innocence was not what India Inc expected, but it surely gave them something to carry back and that’s a good start. Gandhi reminded them of objectives they may have forgotten, such as inclusiveness and celebrating the enormous talent that hides and toils in the streets of urban centres and the villages of India. Taking a leaf from the Congress ‘Chintan Shivir’, he insisted that the business community should learn to get removed from the power centres and policy corridors and that Montek or Manmohan didn’t have a magic wand to change things alone. He had some good ideas on harmony and unity being real growth drivers. Parts of his speech were refreshing, clearly because he put the needle back to the basics for the bottomline obsessed chief executives. His comments on education also pleasantly surprised the audience. “Today we are mortgaging a large part of our future because our education and training is based on defunct ideas that are no longer relevant.”
But he also left people wondering why he was sharing the same frustrations as them. He too is on a treasure hunt for solutions in the recesses of the structures that our system has created. ‘Structures’ was Gandhi’s pet word during the discussion, used nearly 72 times. Whilst seeking a mechanism that decentralized power, taking away the monopoly of a few to take decisions and giving a ‘voice’ to the billion people, Gandhi completely (and conveniently?) forgot to address why the UPA government led by his party had failed to fix this ‘structural’ issue in the nine years of being in power, leave alone the six decades of Congress rule post-independence. Can the UPA be absolved of such criticism? After all, the Gandhi scion has raised it as well. It is a job of the government machinery.
He reiterated he was awkward with the ‘chain’ of his surname and mocked at those who speculated whether he would be prime minister or not. He said it didn’t matter. “One person cannot change the lives of a billion people.”
Unlike his famous ‘I am a soldier of tribals’ speech a few years ago at Niyamgiri Mines in Orissa, he didn’t scare away corporate India with an ‘us versus you’ approach. He said he was honoured to be among the ‘cutting edge’ of India who took our country to the world. But what he did make clear was that the onus of job creation and investment would come from the private sector.
There were some light moments. “I have lost it, again” he said after bundling up his unstapled papers and losing his strain of thought. This fired up the twitterati, which was already frothing with structures, beehives, his confusion and their own disbelief at the lack of prowess of his speechwriter. Luckily when Gandhi took things in his own hands, he even managed to make people laugh. Rahul Gandhi took the mic in his hand, assumed an easy posture and walked up and down the stage (much to the discomfort of his security personnel) replying to the questions. In this more open house format, Rahul Gandhi criticized the functioning of our democracy for being narrow-minded and stuck in a coterie. He said elections in our nation were determined, at a stretch, by no more than 250 people because of the way our system was structured. People were impressed with his frankness. He sounded like me. And you. And fed up.
He said he needed to have more of such interactions. That would be quite a welcome idea, because at the end of the day, you come back thinking that Rahul Gandhi just raised the same questions we are all still looking answers for.