Whatever your view on Rahul Gandhi’s first substantive public appearance on Thursday, you would say that he displayed a charmingly self-deprecatory side to his personality. So, if he is capable of having a little laugh at himself, is he also willing to reflect on the way he has approached his politics so far, as he completes 10 years as an MP. Because if he did, he might see some of the mistakes he has made, or issues he might wish to revisit. Since we do not have an insight into his mind yet, here is our list of what could possibly be called the three mistakes of his political life (apologies to Chetan Bhagat). And let’s talk about two first, and leave the third for later down.
First, he went campaigning in the 2010 assembly elections to Bihar with a straightforward message, which I am taking the liberty to paraphrase: Over the decades, two different India’s had come into being, one shining, the other declining. And the time had now come to rectify that. That the message did not work is evident in the fact that the Congress lost its deposit in 221 out of 243 seats, winning only four. As to why it failed so badly, listen to the words of a very poor but politically articulate, as they usually come in Bihar, farmer at one of his rallies.
He says two India’s have come into being, said the farmer, half-squatting and leaning on a lathi.
And what do you think about this, we asked him.
Hum kahen, sahib (we say, sir), that of the 60 years of Independence, for 53 years you have ruled us and created two Indias. Then, with a defiantly mischievous twinkle that you see in the eyes of the poorest Indians only during an election, he added, “and we say, sahib, that if we gave you five more years, how can we trust you not to divide us into three Indias now?”
This was followed by the next mistake of failing to understand the meaning of aspiration and ambition as he launched a more optimistic campaign in Uttar Pradesh, 2012. He said it was so awful that people from that state had to go to big cities like Mumbai and Delhi to look for ordinary jobs. He illustrated this with the story of an Uttar Pradesh migrant working on the Delhi Metro, leading a tough life away because there was no opportunity at home. His solution was that an expanded NREGA and a better rural economy would enable the same people to stay at home, in their villages. Cut to a member of his audience again. “We get Rs 300-400 a day as labourers on Delhi Metro. You can live on Rs 150 and send the rest home so your children can go to a decent school. We’d rather go to Delhi and Mumbai and work. Ask the Congress people to give NREGA 365 days a year and stay in our village,” was the answer. That view was later affirmed in the election result.
We never know enough to make sense of political history in India, and definitely not so soon. But it could just be that the disaster of Uttar Pradesh led to an honest and realistic reappraisal within the Congress party, and particularly in its higher counsels. Only that could have jolted the party to come out to support FDI in retail at a public meeting, the first time it had done so for anything free-market or foreign (other than the Soviet Bloc in the non-aligned past). It definitely created the space for the prime minister to focus back on the economy. And while we do not yet know if it is too late already to redeem the wreck now, the important fact is, a new future course of the Congress party’s econo-politics is now being set. And it has been bleached of some of its deep pink. Did we see some flashes of that welcome change in Rahul’s 70 minutes with the CII as well?
He had erred in the Hindi heartland. You can’t just get away by blaming your speech writers when you are a leader of such overwhelming power in your party, and, self-admittedly, a product of such deeply political DNA. He had erred, first in not reading the intensity of the aspirational upsurge, and then its meaning and implications. Even in the apparently hopeless heartland, in this decade, aspiration is not three square meals, or a hundred rupees a day. It is electricity, schools, jobs, dignity, material goods, mobile phones, even cable TV. For one living in a Bundelkhand village with no economy, migration to a big city even for a day-labourer or security guard’s job is aspirational. It is not a humiliation. In rapidly growing India, even the perspirational classes are entitled to aspiration.
That’s the intellectual moat he seems to have crossed now. While the inclusive metaphor and a tribute to a rights-based minimum guarantees programme were present, he mainly talked aspiration, empowerment and entrepreneurship. He also spoke one of his most significant, welcome and hopefully enduring lines so far, when he talked of a job being the bridge between aspiration and empowerment, and how only entrepreneurial India could produce those jobs. This is progress.
When Rahul Gandhi says in April 2013 that a rising tide may lift all boats but somebody, including industry, has to give the poorest Indian a boat to at least have that opportunity, it is a far cry from the awful oldspeak of shining versus declining, aspirational versus perspirational India. When he speaks of professors at IITs not even knowing the worth of their intellect and the need to link them to the markets, when he taunts India’s corporates and asks if they have any say in decision-making besides, probably, being good friends with Montek, and suggests an institutional way for them to have a say in governance, it is progress. But is this enough or, has this re-education come too late?
Doubts arise because he is still hesitant to talk about the future, about his own and his party’s politics and policies. The most important missing point was something suffixed with “If we return to power…” Isn’t that what you expect from a political leader, hard-nosed or not, particularly in an election year, when his party is seeking a third successive term? You can’t then get away merely with describing how things are. You also have to say how they will be, how you would want them to be. Could it also be because, as Rahul fathoms the contradictions within his own, his dynasty’s and his party’s politics, his understanding and appreciation of what it means to be in public life is also still a work in progress?
Which brings us, finally, to his third mistake. In his speech at Jaipur that stirred the party faithful, he talked of “this power” that “everybody seeks”, being “poison”. It might be a good idea for him to reflect on this as well. In a democracy, power is a wonderful gift, an honour and a cherished privilege that voters give you. Good leaders embrace it with joy, gratitude and humility. They must treat public office and power as public trust and try coming up to their people’s expectations. “Power as poison” is, regrettably, a feudal formulation, not a democratic one. Power, public office, the faith of the voter, even vote banks, can be looked at in one of two ways: A DNA-scripted bequest, or a responsibility you have to earn and deliver on. Also, if you see this “power” as poison, how do you persuade decent people to join politics?
Maybe that dilemma still needs settling, and maybe this is also a work in progress. You can see this country any which way: An elephant, a tiger, a beehive or a hornet’s nest. But it changes faster than any other we know. See, for example, the incredible empowerment and rise of the backward castes in the past two decades. The ranks of Mulayam and Akhilesh, Lalu, Nitish and Mayawati are now joined by Narendra Modi and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, even Vasundhara Raje, the new stars of a party as Brahmanical as the BJP. You talk of finding political talent deep down, at the panchayat level, remember that is how it was until your own party turned into an oligarchy of many minor dynasties, if not a chamber of princes. Remember where even Ahmed Patel came from: He was a taluka panchayat president.
This is a tribute to the same democratic politics and it is essential that the most significant national leaders recognise this and tailor their politics and message accordingly. Because, awful poison or humble privilege, power will no longer follow DNA and dynasties. It will need policies and programmes. Understanding the aspirational upsurge, therefore, is progress. But, in the absence of a convincing agenda on how you promise to live up to it, it is tempting to borrow a Rahul-ism and turn it on him to say that yes, we have seen progress, but there is a long way to go yet, Boss.
This piece was first published in April 2013.