– by SANJAY JHA
It is four days since Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi held his press conference in New Delhi. 96 odd hours later, there is an unusual buzz, frenetic activity, and incessant dissertation of Rahul’s various pronouncements. There is an understandable sense of palpitating fluster in the BJP. Regional parties are tongue-tied at Gandhi’s sincere unanticipated open-mindedness on potential allies. Typically media analysts believe it is only pure strategic posturing deliberately planned to create fissures in enemy camps. The process of assessment continues.
The resulting rise in political decibels is all because Rahul Gandhi spoke impromptu, letting his intrinsic honesty manifest itself. It is actually as simple as that. It is something the Indian media, high on overdose of mindless mind-reading just cannot decipher. No standard banalities from Gandhi; no typical statements laced in usual political correctness. On the contrary, Rahul Gandhi reflected candor and commitment; he was not afraid of opinion poll ratings of his post-press conference “performance”.
If you watch regular official spokesmen of national parties, they are all practiced to perfection , occasionally punctuating their brief by an impulsive outburst. That is the professional method adopted all over the world; key messaging, just stick to it . But in a fast evolving world, traditional norms are being challenged everywhere, now also including media interaction. In upsetting the traditional route of safe-speak, virtually single-handedly, US President Barack Obama’s “ I screwed up” ( on his failed bid for nomination of Secretary for Health) is a landmark statement. It was refreshingly endearing, even if it shocked the mid-West and the conservative lobby in Capitol Hill.
In India, we have displayed shocking condescension, talk-down, almost pathological rubbishing of each other by political adversaries. Rahul Gandhi clearly believes that the Jurassic culture of senseless anti-anything and anti-everything propaganda needs to be peppered down; he would prefer intelligent articulation, and a balanced debate between opposing parties. And realistic appreciation of good work done ( as in the case of Nitish Kumar, for example ) , is not reflective of making concessions, but of being pragmatic and honest. Frankly, despite all the perfunctory platitudes , have we really ever had a “constructive opposition” in Parliament ?
Rahul has unwittingly, without any opulent ceremony and planned intent , encouraged plain-speak, thereby challenging the obsessed with sound-byte culture ( sorry, Narendra Modi, saab) media into meaningful substance-debate. It is a significant shift, and augurs well for a more transparent culture. It was hardly surprising to find the usually-never-lost-for-words Sudheendra Kulkarni of BJP looking totally foxed and completely clueless when quizzed on Rahul’s down-to-earth outspokenness.
For those who have carefully catalogued Rahul, they will not have been surprised at his trademark forthrightness. Perhaps it is time to do a quick recap:
1. I AM NOT READY TO BE A PRIME MINISTER
At a time when the entire gang comprising of Sharad Pawar, Mayawati, LK Advani et al have been shouting from roof-tops about their grand ambitions, the young man has politely declined the big job, without even momentarily hesitating on that fairly crucial decision. And this despite the fact that the Congress party will perhaps be the biggest single party in the UPA coalition and the Lok Sabha . “ I need more experience” says Rahul in exhilarating honesty, which shows how much he values and respects the Prime Ministerial seat. He has seen several family members at the helm, and for him becoming PM is therefore serious business. He wants to personally feel that he has “ earned” it , and as and when he is ready he will make up his own mind. Five years ago, his mother Mrs Sonia Gandhi declined the same role for different reasons. Now if all that is not true commitment, what is??
2. I WOULD RATHER WORK FOR THE PARTY
Without batting an eyelid, Rahul made clear his personal preferences ; party-consolidation and nation-building. He was honest enough to admit that his “ boss” and the PM may be able to cajole/coerce him into a Ministerial role , but he had urgent tasks at hand; the democratization of the Youth Congress, and increasing local grass-root penetration, being his overriding passions. That was a visionary statement, shorn of personal ambitions and myopic goals. When have we last heard “politicians” talk that language?
3. INDIA IS NOT SHINING
It takes a lot of courage during the times of “excess hyperbole” ( read election time), for a high-profile political personality , whose government recorded a stunning GDP growth averaging above 8% , to say that India is not shining. Because for Rahul it is not about just BPO jobs, FDI, Sensex, SUVs, shopping malls and the world’s biggest IPO. Gandhi is aware that having four Indians in the Forbes top 10 billionaires lost is not symptomatic of India’s real success. Or a bullish Goldman Sachs report. Rahul is worried about those staggering numbers above 400 million that are on the poverty bench, awaiting a huge economic alleviation. They live on a survival help-line. And for Rahul therefore, India will shine not just with income growth, but with it’s fair distribution. Can anyone argue with that economic rationale?
4. NITISH AND NAIDU : AND SOME GOOD WORK
It is amazing how Rahul’s undisguised appreciation of some good work having been done by the former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh , Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar of Bihar has created such an unwarranted hullabaloo. The fact is that these two have certainly done well in some quarters, even if they are part of the NDA combine. Unlike conventional political bashing, Rahul openly praised some of their initiatives, without going over-board. So why on earth should that genuine appreciation create such political air-pockets and uncontrolled turbulence? It is something that the BJP can learn from. I honestly believe ( I had written that in my blog earlier) that LK Advani lost a historic opportunity to appear statesmanlike and raise the BJP brand by voting against the nuclear deal. Senator John Kerry of the Democrat party lost to a weaker George Bush , and yet came to India lobbying on behalf of the Bush administration on the nuclear deal as it was deemed in the mutual interest of the two countries. No petty partisan games; national issues took center-stage. President Obama has two Republicans in his cabinet, and Hillary Clinton fought a bitter battle with him ( more than even John McCain, perhaps) and is today his Secretary of State.
Being a political adversary does not mean asinine mud-slinging ( of the Narendra Modi type) or endless flaky criticism ( of LK Advani-kind ) . Rahul has introduced the element of a balanced perspective when taking on his well-known opponents. We don’t have to be bitterness-personified, says Rahul.
5. DYNASTIC POLITICS
Gandhi has painstakingly stated that he wants to encourage local level, direct grass-root entrants into the party. Let me ask you; who has in the past publicly admitted to having an advantage of being part of a well-known political family? Rahul has stated just that , with courage and conviction. Which is precisely why he is pursuing internal party reforms with passionate zeal. In fact, Rahul has completely dismantled the much over-blown debate on dynastic politics by altering it himself. Surely, he cannot be expected to apologise for being born a Gandhi. It is like Anil Ambani or Ratan Tata saying, “ We are very sorry for being in the billionaire list. Please forgive us”. True, they would not have been there had it not been for their fore-runners, but they have also got there through their own incremental efforts, right?
6. ROLE OF THE CBI
All central government’s end up influencing , willy-nilly, some of the independent institutions of the state. It is a fact, an inconvenient truth, that people generally abstain from stating. Rahul admitted the practical reality ; it was not a confession of government interference in the Bofors case, but a public acknowledgement of the need to bring about “ systemic changes”, like in the pre-election issues of the Election Commission as well.
7. SWISS MONEY
Once again Rahul Gandhi promptly agreed with suggestions given by several experts, including LK Advani that we should look into the slush money parked abroad in Swiss accounts. It was a transparent statement; if something is good for the country , we should do it, irrespective of whom the suggestion comes from. That is the kind of consensus politics India needs.
8. THE END OF TERRORISM
I think everyone completely overlooked what happened on the first day of the elections, when Naxalites butchered people dead. Naxalites have emerged as a dangerous internal threat , and economic impoverishment is the root cause of their rampaging rise. In fact, Rahul understands that rural poverty , if not decisively overcome, could result in a violent social upheaval taking various forms. Village empowerment through education, employment and development is the long-term solution. And the Naxalite is an internal terrorist, make no mistake, if they resort to a violent agenda. And they do not need to travel to India by sea.
9. ON VARUN GANDHI
Rahul did not allow the first-cousin issue to escalate into political warfare; he chose to respect their ideological differences instead. Attacking Varun Gandhi would have been suitable fodder and pro-Muslim strategy , but he skipped it. He made no political capital out of it, letting Varun Gandhi and the BJP work on his resuscitation. It was dignity in politics, reflected with decency and character.
10. LONG HAUL , SO LET’S TALK BUSINESS
Rahul sent a clear message to all and sundry; “cut the annoying daily vacillations on your prime ministerial goals, get us the numbers, and we will talk”. I think in that one unambiguous statement he laid his cards on the table, taking the wind out of the sails of several negotiators. No hidden agendas. No beating about the bush. Deliver and we shall negotiate, said Rahul. Otherwise, Gandhi was categorical, the party with the largest seats will dictate the pace. Since ideological priorities were being traded-off over hard arithmetic by the regional players , then let the numbers speak for themselves, said Rahul.
Rahul Gandhi’s driving force is a constructive approach to nation building which cuts across party-lines. Not for him scoring brownie points with Modi on silly witticisms. Or awaiting media endorsements and poll pundit’s approval. He knows that the real verdict lies amidst those dusty-towns with no electricity, not glitzy studios with flashing back-drops. Unlike others, he does not have to try to be too clever. He is just being himself.
Rahul has brought in candor and character , measure and modesty , humility and homegrown simplicity to Indian political debate and discussions. He is willing to take the bull by the horns; if you can’t handle his frankness and matter-of-fact honesty, go check your conscience meter.
Some stated that it was a coming of age of Rahul Gandhi. I think it could be the beginning of a new one in Indian politics itself.