Thursday, April 4, 2013

India a beehive; its politicians a cast of crabs….

The first half of the above title is what Rahul Gandhi said at yesterday’s CII address, attempting to change India’s historical description of being an elephant. The second he left unsaid, but was proven when countless politicians came out to criticize him and pull him down!

First a bit or two about the speech itself. How you view it depends on which lens you look through. For someone who likes him, Rahul spoke about a larger vision and intentionally left out routine government policies. This was hardly the forum to lay out the details. There was one strong message he sent out though – and this message was the same that Chidambaram mentioned in his budget speech – that the Congress’s vision for India was very different from the BJP’s – especially Narendra Modi’s. The Congress prefers inclusive growth, even if it looks less sexy to us “haves” of the society. Narendra Modi prefers “India shining” or the Chinese model of growth where the un-sexy stuff is ignored and pushed outside the glare of cameras. Just go into the hinterland of Gujarat (or the hinterland of China) and see the reality there. Whether it is human development indices, or the handling of swine flu cases, or even development, the rural hinterland is hardly something that Modi should be proud of. The Congress focuses on the underprivileged. Like it, vote for the Congress. Don’t like it, vote for the BJP! Now take that call placing yourselves amongst the underprivileged, and you’ll understand why the Congress has ruled India for 55 of the 65 years and the BJP was booted out after just 6 years. India Shining was the vaunt of the privileged. The underprivileged was angry, just like it is in Gujarat today. Modi’s vision of India is just another version of India Shining.

Rahul exhuded confidence about the Congress’s model. He had the guts to tell it straight to an industry body overflowing with the privileged (the 42000 that Chidambaram mentioned had an income of more than Rs 1 crore a year); a grouping that would not normally appreciate such a talk. And yet they applauded. Why? Because Rahul didn’t put the onus of social inclusiveness on them. He told them that India owed a lot to them, and needed them to continue pushing India’s growth story forward, while the government would focus on social inclusiveness. The two are not either-or. They work hand-in-hand. I liked the directness, the intellectual capability and honesty of saying this so clearly. A more ordinary leader would have played to the gallery, said things industry wanted to hear, like Modi does all so often.

Rahul has already shown where he stands on economic policies. His unwavering support for economic liberalization was seen in his support for FDI in multi-brand retail. The Congress even held a rally in Delhi, reportedly attended by more than a lac people, to re-demonstrate its preference for economic reforms. The BJP opposed liberalization (retail, insurance, banking, pensions….many more areas). So those who are saying they don’t know what Rahul Gandhi’s thoughts on this subject are should catch up on their reading!

A word on our media. Unfortunately in my hotel in Srinagar (where I am on a short break), there is only NDTV available amongst the English news channels. I was appalled at the content put out by the channel. It first carried out a “The buck stops here” (sans Barkha Dutt) featuring college kids who don’t even know the difference between inflation and GDP growth. Then the host kept calling it “the under 35” segment of population when it was actually the under-20. Later in the 9 pm show, another make-shift anchor (Sreenivasan) put together a grouping of 6 panelists of which 5 were naysayers! There were three opposition partymen (BJP, JD(U) and CPM), one economist (Surjit Bhalla) and one journo (Siddharth Varadarajan of the Hindu). Usually, the anchor tries to balance a debate, choosing panelists with different points of view. He surely knew this was a one-sided panel. But he persisted. He then added his own masala. So six on one side, and one poor Milind Deora to defend Rahul Gandhi’s speech. This is the quality of journalism we have!

Now a word on social media, especially twitter. One fact of the Indian social media scene is that it is still extremely narrow in its coverage. It represents a certain profile of people – young, urban, upper middle-class to rich, English speaking. This section clearly has disdain for Rahul Gandhi, for no reason but the fact that he has a Gandhi surname. The other reality is that “trending” on twitter means nothing, for even a few thousand tweets (and a few re-tweets) can make a topic trending. Trending is an easy thing to manage really! Thirdly, the social media space has been aggressively “bought out” by the BJP in general and Narendra Modi in particular, precisely to fool our TV and print pundits who find it fashionable to look to social media but don’t know its limitations. Today’s TOI reports that only 20% people liked RG’s speech and 60% odd called it “amateurish”. I am sorry, but the 60% numbers (or the 20% for that matter) are “managed”. Voting online is a joke and every insider knows it.

The way I look at it, Rahul Gandhi came out as a visionary. He has an idea for India that is different from the idea that many in our kind of circles have. He may not have worked in government, but he has worked at the grassroots. He has seen India the way very few of us have. He emphathizes with people the way few politicians do. There is no point chiding him for his lack of government experience. Don’t forget Vajpayee had just 2 years and 3 months of experience in government (as foreign minister twenty years earlier; and a highly forgettable stint at that) before he became PM. In politics, it is more important to know the pulse of the people than of the bureaucracy. An outsider brings fresh perspectives. Rajiv Gandhi was an outsider too, but he changed governance the way few did before him.

One last word on Narendra Modi. The man has been panned by the CAG (a body I consider headed by a fool) for “policies” benefitting specific corporates. He hasn’t spoken about the issue at all! Is this the sign of a courageous leader? His partyment say he gave away land cheap, waived off penalties all for generating employment. How convenient a way to shower favors on his favorite businessmen! Now we know why these business leaders say they want him as PM! His party says that the CAG report will go through the constitutionally mandated drill – PAC etc. Haha. The party forgot this during 2G when it stopped Parliament for a full session! Modi’s true colors are coming out….slowly for now…. But the pace will only increase in the months to come.

The real truth is that Rahul Gandhi’s address was a decent debut. He endorsed his party’s policies of inclusiveness and economic liberalization. The truth is that his governments (UPA-1 and 2) have delivered the fastest growth rates this country has ever seen – and certainly much more than what the BJP delivered in its six years. When Rahul Gandhi speaks, he attracts attention. He is young; has a lot of ideas, and is bold enough to talk straight. This is what worries the BJP!

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