New Delhi, April 4: Rahul Gandhi today cast himself as a label-defying Everyman — a portrayal that stood out in sharp contrast with the Superman persona being built around Narendra Modi.
In a coming-of-age speech on a non-choreographed national platform offered by the CII, Rahul tried to reclaim the pro-poor space associated with his family while challenging the idea that such a political position was necessarily antagonistic to big business and the middle classes.
He said that stitching a coalition of all socio-economic strata was the way forward and contended that non-inclusive politics led to social tensions and communal disharmony that were inimical to sustainable growth.
Critics have accused Rahul of aimless idealism and a lack of coherent or realistic answers to problems but he appeared to be consciously working on a political model opposed to the one advocated by Modi.
Rahul’s speech-cum-interaction at the CII event also reaffirmed the emergence of the corporate pulpit as the theatre where battle lines for the next general election are being drawn. BJP leader Arun Jaitley, who spoke after Rahul, said his party was “always committed to business”. Modi is scheduled to address meetings organised by other chambers in Delhi and Calcutta next week. ( )
Rahul stressed empowerment at the grassroots and ridiculed the idea of a knight in shining armour arriving on horseback to solve all the problems of the country.
His formulations, from inclusive politics to robust leadership, were obviously aimed at Modi, who has been trying to paint over his divisive baggage with a development narrative built on decisive and tough action and prompt delivery.
“We love this idea that somebody will come on a horse… and everything will be fine,” Rahul said. “We have to move from that. Even if we give all the powers we want to one person, he can’t solve all the problems.”
Addressing the CII’s two-day national conference, Rahul eschewed talk of the economy, policy specifics, fiscal deficits or the investment climate, leaving these subjects to the assembled bureaucrats and ministers. The omission appears to have disappointed a section of foreign investors, diplomats and the western media expecting specific answers.
But Rahul suggested he was not in the business of offering feel-good, quick-fix solutions. “We have a tendency in India to think about solving all our problems incrementally. But whenever India has done well, it has done so not by incremental steps but by radically transforming its structures,” he said, citing the Green Revolution and the IT and telecom revolution.
Rahul spoke of devolution of power and the need to create a political architecture that integrated the village pradhan into decision-making. He said that most of the decisions the political leadership takes today can be taken at lower levels far away from Delhi or the state capitals.
In a subtle allusion to Modi’s tales about how he clears projects in a jiffy, Rahul spoke of a system where businesses would be rewarded in village and city streets because of the quality of their products and not because of their competitive networking at Raisina Hill.
While Modi has been speaking on subjects like packaging and marketing and the procedural hassles in business clearances, Rahul dwelt on the aspirations, struggles and optimism of the poor through the now-familiar style of anecdotes from his personal experience.
Today, it was about Girish the carpenter and an unnamed Muslim boy he encountered on the Lokmanya Tilak Express from Gorakhpur to Mumbai.
Some Congress leaders, unhappy at the dominance of growth-centric national discourse, were delighted to see Rahul focus on what they see as the fundamental problems before such a gathering.
Quoting former US President John Kennedy, Rahul said a “rising tide raises all the boats” but added that most of the poor don’t have any boats and that the state must intervene to provide them with basic education, jobs, opportunities and information.
At the same time, Rahul battled the notion that pro-poor means anti-rich. “I want a long-term partnership with you to take this country forward,” he said.
He voiced some of industry’s basic concerns, such as the shortage of skilled workers and the disconnect between universities and the market, and promised to address these.
Although Rahul struck a chord with the audience, he could only provide vague solutions such as institutionalising partnership in the system from top to bottom.
But unlike his grandmother, whose pro-poor agenda often clashed with the interests of the rich, he repeatedly emphasised the idea of a partnership, conceded that the clogged system posed hurdles to business, and hailed industry as giving a cutting edge to India.
If Rahul invoked the ordinary Indian to explain his philosophy, he also took care to name Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Sam Pitroda, Nandan Nilekani and Sunil Mittal several times.
Congress leaders felt this balance in his approach would reassure the corporate world and global investors about the continuity in the party’s policies and principles despite his aggressive pro-poor tilt.