Former Congress president and current Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi recently held a video chat with former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan to discuss the economic impacts of the coronavirus-induced lockdown. This, Congress sources say, was the start of a series of interviews and conversations that Rahul Gandhi will conduct with leaders and acclaimed achievers from various walks of life.
The conversation received a lot of traction on both social and print media, and was even carried by mainstream national English news channels, most of which are not very kind to Rahul Gandhi. Therefore, when I read senior journalist T.N. Ninan’s article in ThePrint titled Rahul Gandhi’s chat with Raghuram Rajan makes it look like Congress doesn’t have solutions, I was perplexed. What surprised me even more was that a lot of ‘influential commentators’ seemed to agree with Ninan’s point of view.
Seeking wisdom is not weakness
For starters, the entire conversation between Rahul Gandhi and Raghuram Rajan was smooth, focusing on the economic situation during the ongoing pandemic and offering specific solutions with numbers. Ninan does not seem to find fault with any of that but has an issue with Gandhi asking most of the questions and Rajan responding to them. This, he writes, is “an odd position in which to place the putative leader of the largest opposition party, as someone who seeks wisdom rather than providing answers or solutions.”
I found this very strange because how can seeking wisdom be construed as a sign of weakness? Is it not true that a ‘wise person is hungry for knowledge?’ Even Lord Ram, after killing Ravan, asked Lakshman to seek wisdom from their dying opponent. Only the foolish and egoistic believe that they alone know everything.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus crisis a global emergency on 30 January — the day India reported its first positive Covid-19 case. All through February, Rahul Gandhi warned the Narendra Modi government on the health as well as financial distress that the Covid-19 would bring, but the government, including health minister Harsh Vardhan, hurled personal attacks at him. Now, in hindsight, we know Gandhi was 100 per cent correct.
In a knee-jerk reaction, Prime Minister Modi, who gave people two days for a voluntary ‘Janata Curfew’ to bang thalis, gave just four hours’ notice to a country of over 1.3 billion before shutting it down for three weeks. Government data itself shows millions of poor migrants were stuck. The human suffering of these poor citizens could easily have been avoided if the Modi government had just paid heed to the warnings, consulted experts and “sought their wisdom”. India had a nearly two-month window in January and February to prepare itself, even as China and Iran were struggling with the novel coronavirus. Even now, our testing for the coronavirus still remains low compared to other countries because the Modi government just did not procure enough testing kits initially.
What would ‘PM Rahul Gandhi’ do
The lockdown has led to an economic catastrophe. A study suggests that for the first time since 1979, the Indian economy may contract. In such a scenario, if one is to pit Rahul Gandhi as the face of the opposition, he can give a broader idea of how he wants the macroeconomic situation to improve. He can envisage his economic goals for India, voice his concerns and articulate a broad vision but the specifics must come from the experts. In this case, it was Raghuram Rajan.
Let us assume Rahul Gandhi as the PM who wants to lay out a roadmap for the automobile sector. For two-wheelers, he will need to consult the Bajajs and the Munjals just like he would consult the Mahindras and Natarajan Chandrasekaran of Tata Motors and R.C. Bhargava of Maruti Suzuki along with other car manufacturers to prepare a fair policy for the four-wheelers.
Any policy must include the voices of the stakeholders and experts who can highlight specific bottlenecks, point out opportunities and help execute the government’s macro vision on the ground. Similarly, if Rahul Gandhi as PM wants to help the banks get out of the crisis that the Covid-19 will create, he will need to speak to the RBI as well as the borrowers and understand sector-wise concerns to bring in the required policy. It applies to every sector — be it service, hospitality, pharma, or airlines. Ultimately, the role of a leader is to have a larger vision, which must be flexible as well as practical.
Let’s face it, Modi isn’t a leader
Compare this with how Narendra Modi has governed. With only four hours’ notice, he announced demonetisation and sucked out 86 per cent of Indian currency in circulation. The economy has never recovered from that jolt even as no black money was uncovered. Will any expert claim credit for the horrendous decision of demonetisation? If only PM Modi had actually consulted and “sought wisdom” from Raghuram Rajan before this ridiculous economic suicide. Perhaps it would have made little difference because the RBI board had warned Modi about demonetisation just hours before he made the announcement on 8 November 2016.
Even now, no ‘expert’ would be ready to take credit for the sudden lockdown imposed by Modi, leaving an entire population unprepared and clueless. Many people died, many are still hungry and there will be massive job losses. It is going to take another six to eight months from the time the lockdown is lifted to restart India’s economic engine. But PM Modi, apart from playing an emotional paternal leader, has not been able to communicate the roadmap ahead for our economy and the nation.
It’s extremely dangerous for a democracy when leaders override expert opinion because they believe they know it all. During the Balakot airstrikes, Modi suggested to the defence forces that “heavy cloud cover could be used” to prevent the Indian Air Force jets from being detected by the enemy radar. It was unfortunate and shocking that no one had the guts to tell him how unscientific he was. We were lucky we did not suffer casualties but a country cannot run on luck.
It will serve India much better if we have leaders like Rahul Gandhi, who are not afraid to publicly listen, learn and admit they need the advice of experts. We all do. The alternate to Rahul Gandhi is a leader who believes job opportunities have not diminished despite all the available data, whose government suppresses unemployment reports, and who points to poor people “selling pakodas” outside TV studios to claim that he has created jobs. Still no one has the guts to tell the supreme leader how wrong he is. Incidentally, the same pakoda sellers are today the worse sufferers of this unplanned lockdown.
The author is a social activist and political analyst. Views are personal.
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