Rahul Gandhi speaks at UC Berkeley on Tuesday. Picture by Jay Mandal/On Assignment
Sept. 12: Rahul Gandhi today ran into a blizzard of ridicule for suggesting that dynasties are a fact of life in India and listing "dynasts" ranging from Akhilesh Yadav to Abhishek Bachchan to the Ambanis.
Rahul was addressing students at the University of California, Berkeley. Back home in India, Union minister Smriti Irani led the chorus of protests and called Rahul a "failed dynast".
But the nearly 25-minute session at Berkeley, which involved a speech and a question-answer-session, offered a rare window on the mind of Rahul Gandhi who is often described as "a reluctant politician".
Rahul told the audience to figure out for itself whether he is stupid or not. Some possible clues to the riddle follow. The questions are framed by this newspaper but the answers culled from Rahul's conversation at Berkeley.
Q: What does Rahul Gandhi do in his day job? Does he do anything other than visiting Dalit homes and flying off for holidays?
Rahul said most of his work "is sitting in a room, listening to people. I collect that information and come out with a solution that makes everyone happy. The way we design a vision is by having a conversation".
Rahul later referred to the purported style of Prime Minister Narendra Modi: "What I sense is that he doesn't converse with the people he works with. Even members of Parliament of the BJP come to me and tell me that ' sunte nahi hain' (he does not listen to us)."
Q: Does he have anything good to say about the Modi government?
Yes. Rahul did compliment the government on the concepts of Make in India and Swachh Bharat. "On what they have done well? What I like? I like the concept of Make in India. But the orientation of Make in India is slightly different than what I would do. So, the orientation of Make in India is big business and a lot of it is defence. My orientation of Make in India would be small and medium businesses."
Q: Does Rahul give credit where it is due?
Rahul conceded readily that Modi is a good communicator. "Mr Modi is also my Prime Minister. Mr Modi has certain skills. He's a very good communicator. Probably much better than me. He understands how to give a message to three or four different groups in a crowd. So his messaging abilities are very subtle and very effective."
Q: Does Rahul admit mistakes?
Yes. Rahul said that around 2012, the Congress "stopped having conversations with the people".
He added: "The vision that we laid out in 2004 was designed at best for a 10-year period. And it was pretty clear that the vision that we laid out in 2004 by the time we arrived in 2010-11 was not working anymore.... Somewhere around 2012, and I say this, a certain arrogance crept into the Congress. And they stopped having that conversation."
Rahul did not elaborate but he seemed to be suggesting that the Congress should have done something beyond the rights-based policies that defined the UPA. Which direction that thrust would have taken - towards the Left or more towards the right of Centre - was not clear.
Q: Has he matured?
Yes, compared with an interview in the run-up to the 2014 elections. Asked whether he would apologise for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Rahul had committed the blunder of retorting: "I wasn't involved in the riots at all." In the next few minutes Rahul underscored his respect and admiration for the Sikhs, but his first response had created the impression that he lacked leadership qualities.
Today, Rahul was categorical upfront: "Violence against anybody is wrong, and I condemn it.... If there's anything I can do to help them (the Sikhs) get justice... I'll be the first person to do so."
But the riots remain a weeping wound. At Berkeley today, a student asked: "Why are certain politicians like Kamal Nath, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar being shielded by the Congress?" However, the question went unanswered.
Q: Does he have a sense of humour?
Oh, yes. The comments on dynasty that have earned him rebuke back home appeared to have been delivered - and received by the young audience - with a healthy dose of humour.
At one point, Rahul said: "If you look at the Congress party, there's a large number of people who're actually not from dynastic families at all...." Then, tongue in cheek, he wisecracked about himself: "There are also people who did happen to have a father, or a grandmother, or a great-grandfather in politics. They do exist. Not much I can do about it."
Q: Is he a reluctant politician?
Rahul seemed less reluctant than the perception till now. "Absolutely ready," Rahul said today, asked whether he would take up an executive responsibility if the party asked him to do so. Are you open to it? "Yes, sure," Rahul replied.
Q: Then, why is he called a reluctant politician and Pappu?
Rahul was in his elements when he answered a similar question: "There is a BJP machine, about a thousand guys sitting on computers that basically tell you about me," he said, prompting the audience to burst into laughter.
"They tell you, I am reluctant, I'm stupid. They tell you all these things.... You've seen me now... You guys gotta make up your mind. You have to figure that out," he said as more laughter and applause followed.
"All they do is spread abuse about it. And the operation is basically run by the gentleman who is running our country," Rahul added.