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HOPE AROUSED

The common grouse against Rahul Gandhi is that he does not articulate what he stands for. This criticism will have to be tempered after Mr Gandhi provided a glimpse into his economic vision in his speech to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. He chose his forum well. But what must have surprised even this audience is Mr Gandhi’s advocacy of reforms in labour laws and for the need to make the labour market more flexible. This is not an issue that many politicians uphold, even industry-friendly ones like Narendra Modi, even though the existing labour laws are seen by most investors as a major hurdle for industrial growth in India. Thus, this was very brave of Mr Gandhi and it must have won him many friends among industrialists. Mr Gandhi also spoke of the adverse effect slow decision making has on industry. He was careful, however, to ensure that his comments were not perceived as implied criticism of the present government. He thus picked out some of the innovative things this government has done to promote industrialization.

The question that is inevitably being asked is how far these represent Mr Gandhi’s real views and how far he was playing to his audience. This doubt arises because, if these are his views, he has done precious little in the past to have these reflected in the government’s and the party’s economic programme. In fact, the Congress continues to carry the ideological baggage of socialist policies of subsidies and doles. If Mr Gandhi had firmly stood behind the reform of labour laws, economic reforms and growth would have gathered greater momentum instead of languishing. If Mr Gandhi is sincere, he should speak about the importance of economic reform not to the converted, that is, the industrialists, but to the Congress workers and legislators. He should wean the Congress away from populist programmes. Mr Gandhi should match his words to action. It was no coincidence perhaps that his speech came a few hours after the resignation of a minister who had delayed many an industrial project. It is entirely possible that Mr Gandhi, however belatedly, has already initiated a process of change. If this hope is not misplaced, then it will not be too much to expect a Congress manifesto with a radically different orientation. That will mark the real arrival of Mr Gandhi.