Rahul Gandhi with a group of students at Princeton University on Wednesday. (Jay Mandal/ On Assignment)
New Delhi, Sept. 20: Rahul Gandhi, who has often caught national attention with his powerful critique of the RSS-BJP philosophy, today offered a broad idea of his alternative vision - on the economy, social issues and foreign policy.
In a question-answer session with students at Princeton University in the US, the Congress vice-president identified job creation as the central challenge, and linked economic distress caused by lack of jobs to the rise of identity and communal politics.
Providing quality education and health care to the poor were other key challenges, he said, noting that these were already available to the well-off. A lot more had to be done on gender equality.
Rahul also flagged decentralisation of power, real democratisation of law-making processes, opening up systems to ensure greater participation of transparency, and inclusive politics as vital ingredients of his vision for India. He indicated support for economic liberalisation but stressed the need for balance to address the concerns of the deprived sections.
Unlike his first interaction on this two-week US tour when he freely criticised the Narendra Modi government, he was cautious today and avoided repeated provocations by the questioners, possibly to keep the focus on his own ideas and vision.
Rahul has been accused of often criticising Modi without spelling out an alternative agenda of governance. He has denounced intolerance, supported liberty and spoken against Modi's policies, which he has said benefit only a few big businesses, but rarely cared to explain if he would go beyond his mother's welfare schemes.
Today he opened up on his economic outlook and described agriculture as a "strategic opportunity".
"There is a huge migration from villages to cities but we cannot give jobs to such a large number of people in the services sector. You cannot do without agriculture. We have to create food chains, build storage infrastructure... in addition to giving jobs, this can preserve our fruits and vegetables that go waste."
The comment marks a shift in the Congress's approach as even former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was supportive of the movement away from dependence on agriculture.
Rahul supported Modi's Make-in-India but suggested a different emphasis and execution. "Our Prime Minister focuses on large businesses. Target should be small businesses... our education system has to change. It is the Industrial Revolution education system, 20th century system. We have to create a 21st century system. Nature of jobs will change. Education should be based on concepts, not subjects."
The Congress leader contested the perception that private schools were better. "Public schools are very good in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The government has to spend more to provide education at the bottom."
On parliamentary functioning, he said: "Bureaucrats decide everything. Parliament only validates laws. We have to make law-making processes more transparent, we have to involve people... let parliamentarians make law."
Arguing that the Prime Minister and chief ministers have too much power, Rahul said: "Decentralisation of power is a must. Local bodies should decide what to do with a road."
Advocating transparency and holding that "closing access is not a good idea", he said: "Open up systems. Transparency is disruptive but powerful."
Rahul continued: "Connectivity has penetrated institutions. In this room, we discuss a policy. Outside, somebody will tweet and that is a powerful idea. We can't leave people out of these processes."
Responding to a question about a feeling of alienation among tribals, Rahul said: "The problem is... a single vision is being forced. Tribals don't feel comfortable. Minorities don't feel they are part of the system. India's strength is to embrace people. Education, health, jobs...everything rests on the structure of harmony. Politics of polarisation is the central risk. Leaving millions of people out is not a good idea. This is the biggest difference between Modi and our vision"
To question about the rise of leaders like Modi and Donald Trump, Rahul said: "The central reason why Modi rose, and to an extent Trump, is the question of jobs in India and the US. Large parts of our populations do not have jobs and (they) can't see a future. So they are feeling a pain. They have supported these types of leaders. The problem is the record on jobs of these types of leaders, I don't know Trump and won't go there, but certainly our PM's is not good enough."
He added: "Same people who got angry with us are going to get angry with Modi. The central question is resolving that problem. My main issue with Modi is he diverts that issue, points fingers somewhere else. We need to transform ourselves to compete with China. Get 10, 15 or 20,000 jobs for our 30,000 people. (He had earlier said 30,000 new people seek jobs in India every day and only 450 are getting them right now)."
He continued on the theme. "There is anger building up in India and we can sense it. The Congress was unable to give jobs to these people and now Modi is unable. They have to first accept it as a problem. Right now, nobody is accepting it. The discussion is about 9 per cent, 8 per cent, 7 per cent growth... nobody is discussing how many of these millions of people have been given jobs."
One point that stood out was his description of Mahatma Gandhi, often labelled a rigid man who opposed technology and modernity. Asked about Gandhi's insistence on primacy of the village economy, Rahul said: "Gandhi was an evolving person, very flexible. He preferred a decentralised system but he didn't mean India should stay in 1947... villages should remain static in village form."
On foreign policy, he stuck to Nehruvian pacifism, stressing the need for cordial relations with nations as "we live in a volatile neighbourhood". Unlike Modi who came to power promising to deal with China with "red eyes", Rahul referred to the powerful neighbour in terms of cooperation and competition, not confrontation.
He acknowledged the need for cooperation with the US, signalling that antagonism in foreign policy was counter-productive.