Rahul Gandhi speaks at UC Berkeley on Tuesday.
Picture by Jay Mandal/On Assignment
New Delhi, Sept. 12: He was going stately seamless until he stitched himself into that one knot he should have known he'd have to negotiate.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi's robust 19-minute critique of the Narendra Modi government and how it had come to hurt India's singular potential lay smudged by half a minute's fumble over home stretch: dynasty.
"Not much I can do about it," he grinned, hands almost raised in submission when asked if he wasn't a dynast in a party he said was democratic. "Actually, most parties in India have that problem. Akhilesh Yadav is a dynast, Stalin is a dynast, Dhumal's son (Anurag Thakur) is a dynast, even Abhishek Bachchan is a dynast. That's how India runs, so don't get after me, because that is how the entire country is running."
He was addressing an "India at 70" event at the University of California, Berkeley, and his audience, often up in applause, could have been forgiven for thinking the Congress heir had arrived under-stocked on smartness.
Rahul should have known the dynasty googly will come at him, he could have rehearsed his footwork. He did attempt a recovery of sorts, saying he was attempting change and had brought in "large numbers" of people into the Congress who did not belong to dynasties and arguing, feebly by that time, that the real question should be not a person's family but if "the person is capable and sensitive". It was like trying to abort an arrow that had left the bowstring.
Rahul standing and delivering possessed far greater poise than the Rahul seated and taking questions. He fidgeted and faltered in the chair, he was cogent and collected at the lectern. It was a composed state-of-the-nation as he sees it address during which he flagged India's many achievements and promise but, equally, sounded the many perils that beset it.
"The hatred, anger, violence and political polarisation which have raised their ugly head in India today - liberal journalists being shot, people being lynched because they are Dalits, Muslims being killed on the suspicion of eating beef - this is new in India and it damages India very badly, it distracts the people from the task at hand... this has the potential to derail what has been built so far.... This could mean catastrophe for India and the world."
The Congress scion conceded during a post-speech conversation that Prime Minister Modi had "certain skills" but found much to fault his approach and orientation. "He is a very good communicator, probably much better than me," Rahul said, "His messaging ability is very subtle and effective. But I find that he doesn't converse with people he works with... Opposition parties like the Congress too have ideas, but he is not interested. MPs from the BJP itself come and tell me he is not interested in talking to them."
Rahul also commended the Make in India and Swachh Bharat initiatives, but with caveats. "Modi's orientation to Make in India is focused on big business and a lot of defence things. My orientation would be small and medium scale businesses, unless you help and promote them, we will not grow. Stuff that they are doing about open defecation and hygiene is a good idea.... But the problems are of approach and orientation.... All the attention is focused on 100 top companies. The banks are monopolised by them, the government's doors are always open to them, the laws are shaped by them... medium and small businesses, the agriculture sector, they are being destroyed...."
He would go on to charge the Modi government with throttling RTI. "One of the problems we faced in our time (in power) was because there was a lot of information flying around with the transparency that RTI brought about. That is no more the case now, there is no information, Modi has clamped down on RTI."
Aside from sounding the alarm on proliferating social hatred and violence under Modi - "What can destroy our momentum is the opposite energy of peace" - Rahul's most considered assault came on the November 2016 demonetisation fiat. "Ignoring India's tremendous institutions and taking ad hoc decisions is dangerous and reckless," he argued, "Demonetisation, which removed 86 per cent of the cash overnight and was carried out unilaterally without asking the chief economic adviser, the cabinet or even parliament, has imposed devastating costs on India."
Labelling the move a "completely self-inflicted wound", Rahul said it has caused a huge setback to small businesses and farmers, and the economy as a whole. "This decline in economic growth is worrying and leading to an upsurge of anger. 30,000 young men are coming into the job market every day and only 500 are getting jobs. No amount of growth matters if it does not come with job creation, employment is the central challenge we face."
Often critical of the ways in which his party functions, Rahul admitted the UPA had begun to lose its way towards the middle of its second term in power. "Around 2012, a certain arrogance crept into the Congress," he said, "But to tell you the truth the vision we had designed was for a 10-year period, but 2010-11, it was actually not working any more."
Cleverly, he didn't omit to mention that a lot of what was happening under Modi was a carryover of the "architecture we had designed" for the UPA. "MGNREGA, which Modi criticised but persisted with was done by us, the hastily implemented GST was borrowed from us. But I can tell you, it is not working any more."
What would? "We have to redesign a vision and rebuild the Congress in a way that would take India forward," Rahul replied. How exactly, he wasn't yet spelling out.
But was he himself ready to take on the job and lead the party into the next election? "I am absolutely ready to do that," came the response, almost pat, "But we have an internal organisational system. That decision (to become Congress president and be projected as prime ministerial candidate) is for the Congress to take."
Sounded odd coming from a man who proclaimed dynasty is how India works; "Not much I can do about it, so don't get after me."