Rahul’s smoke and mirrors – Ravi Shanker Kapoor

Were it not for a distinct possibility of Rahul Gandhi becoming prime minister, his rambling address to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) would have been dismissed as a clown prince’s verbigeration. But he is the scion of the country’s most powerful political dynasty and, therefore, cannot be laughed away as a joke.

He is perennially unprepared for the job of redeeming India, though. The grandees of his party are worried; they incessantly remind him of his divinely-ordained right—though he believes that it is DNA-ordained—to rule. As he put it, “It is an accident of fate. I happen to come from a chain of people, it is my DNA. I have been put in this situation and told: ‘Boss, you are here’.” Divinity or deoxyribonucleic acid, we are screwed.

I had to watch his theatrics on the dais (televised by TV channels), suffer the verbiage (which some friendly newspersons exalted by calling it ‘vision’), and read his speech in newspapers to find some substance. Not much was said; there were hints, allusions, insinuations, etc., but no clear stand on any substantive issue, no policy statement, no roadmap for the future. A lot of poetry, a great deal of sanctimoniousness, considerable affectation, but little substance.

It was expected of a man who is likely to become prime minister to offer a plan to tackle the real problems the country is facing: a slowing down economy, policy paralysis, the red tape, persistent inflation, rising fiscal and current account deficits, declining savings and investment, and so on. What he offered was claptrap mixed with irrelevant anecdotes.

There was also some oblique criticism of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi: “When you play the politics of alienating communities, you stop the movement of people and ideas. When that happens, we all suffer. Businesses suffer and the seeds of disharmony are sown and the dreams of our people are severely disrupted.” But such, and more caustic, comments are routinely made against Modi, who seems to be emerging as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate.

Again without naming Modi, Rahul dismissed the former’s rise on the basis of his performance in his state. He trashed the expectations from Modi as messianism (It is another matter that Rahul’s own party presents him as the messiah the nation is eagerly waiting for). He said that people believe in “the man who comes in on a horse, there is the sun in the background, a billion people waiting, and he is going to fix everything. No, that’s not going to happen.”

So, how should it happen? “Give one individual all the power you want, he cannot solve the problems of a billion people. Give a billion people the power to solve their problems, it will be done immediately.”

This statement is rooted in the soil of statism. It is always power, and not freedom, that solves problems. Power is always about government, politicians, and bureaucrats; freedom is about endeavor, enterprise, individuals, and individual strivings. Rahul has no use of freedom; he sees meaningful action in terms of state only. So, he says, “Give everybody the basic minimum on a number of key ideas. Give them the basic minimum on the job front. Give them the basic minimum on the education front. Give them the basic minimum on information.”

Notice “them.” The people, especially the poor, are them who need to be redeemed. They take; we (read state) give them ideas, information, jobs, education… everything. They are the serfs, forever looking askance at state munificence.

Almost making a virtue of the incompetence and venalityof his own party which has ruled the country for the most part after Independence, Rahul said that India’s “complexity” has prepared its businesspersons to compete in the United States and Europe. “The beehive is a good analogy. You are masters of complexity, this buzzing sound you don’t like, these newspaper stories which drive me nuts, this is your training, developing you to deal with complexity. This is what’s going to give you the competitive advantage like nobody has ever had before. When you go out into the world and you have dealt with this complexity and you’re dealing with competitors in the United States, France and Germany, you are people trained in complexity dealing with people trained in simplicity. I tell you who is going to win—you are going to win.”

Rahul is like an abusive and brutal parent taking credit for his or her child becoming a commando. ‘See, we made him a tough guy!’ Seldom was callousness so self-righteous.

What grotesque dimensions Rahul is adding to the English language! ‘Complexity’ becomes a euphemism for humongous corruption, bad laws, the never-loosening red tape, and monumental incompetence. And what imagery! India is like a beehive, with the buzzing sounds massive scams, stalled projects, and growing chaos. Of course, he didn’t tell the audience who gets the honey from the beehive. Do the Congress and his family have nothing to do with the honey?

I get the feeling that Rahul was trying to do a Gandhi—that is, the real one, Mahatma Gandhi. About a century ago, when Gandhiji began his political career in India, he dressed and talked like ordinary Indians; he tried to ‘connect’ with the people. He identified himself with, to use a contemporary term, the aam aadmi. That was a novelty at a time when Congress leaders were of aristocratic deportment and disposition.

Today, however, that distinction does not matter, for almost every politician tries to identify himself with the people in sartorial, attitudinal, ideological, and dialectal terms. Who, pray, can beat Lalu Prasad Yadav in identification politics? Can Rahul match Lalu’s buffoonery?

Besides, there is no comparison between Gandhiji and Rahul. I am not an admirer of Gandhi, but the man learnt from life, had strength of character and conviction; he came from nowhere and left his stamp on the nation. Rahul, on the other hand, was born to rule. He is like the Bourbons of yore—having learnt no lessons from the failure of dirigisme, and having forgotten none of the shibboleths of Nehruvian socialism. While Gandhiji arrived at his own conclusions, which were sometimes at variance with the national mood (Chauri Chaura is an example), Rahul is little more than a phantom created by Congress spin doctors and media managers—a phantom that seeks to revive the worst features of the pre-liberalization era, a specter that haunts India. In Rahul’s thinking, the doctrines of socialism (which are in themselves deeply flawed) get infected with sanctimoniousness; his entire discourse is replete with ostentatious concern for the poor, women, minorities, Dalits, etc.—sanctimonious because the concern is a sham, because the policies of his party have hurt the country, especially the sections whose cause he claims to champion. Unsurprisingly, his discourse is like the oozing pus form a festering wound—the pus consisting of bad ideas, phony philanthropy, and downright hypocrisy.

To cover up the putridity, and to make for the dearth of substance, Rahul adopted a style that he and his handlers thought would impress the people, particularly the youth. He tried to act in an informal and ‘cool’ manner. Walking on the dais, telling the gathering how he held a senior Chinese official, using the colloquial ‘boss’ more than once, and indulging in similar theatrics. On record, the captains of industry said nice things about him: you can’t afford to be muted in praise of, let alone lampoon, the crown prince and expect to escape the wrath of the state.

A most important question people are asking is: why did Rahul waste such an opportunity, his first address to India Inc? The answer is that he and others in the ruling coterie has only that much interest in the economy as what would earn the government revenue to carry out their quixotic schemes.

Besides, listing any concrete measures to improve the economy would have only exposed Rahul and his family to tough questions: How would you tackle the current account deficit? How do you strike a balance between food security legislation? What would you do to cut procedural delays? How to start the stalled projects? What would you do to rein in prices? What about black money? How to fight corruption?

To answer these questions sincerely, one must have ideas that are illuminated with reason and commonsense, policies that are based on empirical evidence, a mindset that is solicitous without being patronizing and patrician, and honest intentions. A party that reminds us of multi-billion dollar scandals, discredited slogans of dark ages, and the apogee of bad governance cannot answer these questions. The future boss of such a party, who dismissed the prospects of his becoming prime minister as “smoke” and “irrelevant,” could only offer smoke and mirrors.

And that is what Rahul Gandhi actually did.

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