( Rahul Gandhi’s speech at CII reflected an open stance style of leadership that challenges the traditional forms which are more personality-focused.. It has set a new benchmark and alternative for future debates on leadership styles in a globalized world of the 21st century).
It is a sign of our times that a pre-announced speech made by the Vice President of the Indian National Congress party Mr Rahul Gandhi became as spectacularly awaited, as if a one-man Presidential address to the nation. From the moment Mr Gandhi began his talk, millions understandably thronged their small screens to hear his vision or road map of a modern, evolving India . In certain subterranean offices, bleary-eyed members of the trained BJP social media began their preordained ridiculing of him as if in effortless tandem. Some veteran media analysts well past their prime time perhaps wrote their critical report a day earlier to meet newspaper deadlines. TV screens carried slug-shots. And soon everyone was an expert on Mr Gandhi’s speech even before he began his captivating Q&A session. The discerning ( including several CEO’s) gave him a standing ovation, the cynics carped and complained , characteristic of their character with prodigious relish. As I write, realms of newsprint and bottomless blogosphere are being extravagantly consumed by profound analysis of his speech. . It is good news for Mr Gandhi. Whether an orchestrated downpour of negativity on social media or unbiased editorial assessment, Mr Gandhi had hit the right buttons. It worked big time.
Mr Gandhi was not making a party or personal pitch or program-specific talk. It was a talk on the changing economic and social fabric of India and the role of the various stakeholders; corporate India being a crucial component of that emerging India story, the other being the political establishment and the role of transparent governance. Interestingly, the morning headlines of that day was inescapable; Sterlite , part of the multi-billion Vedanta Group which Mr Gandhi had protested against in Orissa , was fined Rs 100 crores for causing pollution. And The Economist talked of India becoming a great superpower in a global security context. Understanding the larger ecosystem needs sensitivity, but sensibilities are normally scarce. Mr Gandhi picked up the gauntlet.
He assuaged apprehensive CEO’s sporting deep frowns at the very beginning that an anti-poverty focus would not be enough, a public-private partnership model was imperative in several sectors. For a usually cribbing India Inc that was a message favoring “ participative liberalization” , that would encompass areas beyond hard physical infrastructure to soft power like education. Without saying so in so many words Mr Gandhi hinted that the demographic dividend stood to becoming a non-performing liability, with harmful social consequences if not properly channelized. His critics perhaps wanted him to talk about NSDC ( National Skills Development Corporation) and financial investments, but this was not a Cabinet Minister talking shop. His speech exemplified the truism that “ don’t we often miss the woods for the trees”? To get to the prescription, first you have to know the panacea, my impatient friends. He was , without being aware of it himself perhaps, talking animatedly like an alchemist sharing his dreams. .
A less mature person or the conventional political leader would have rattled some compelling statistics of the UPA ; strong GDP growth second only to China in the Great Recession era post-2007 period comprising of US fiscal cliff and a dark Euro vision , doubling of per capita income, RTI, Lok Pal Bill, FDI in multi-brand retail, Direct Benefits Transfer, Food Security, MNREGA, Anti-Money laundering bill, reduction in poverty, Companies bill, RTE, Criminal Amendment bill, Whistleblowers Bill, Aadhar etc. Instead of indulging in self-congratulations, Mr Gandhi bit the bullet. And he bit it hard. A true leader lives in the moment , does not bask on past adulations. His main focus seemed evident; beyond the explosive growth numbers , could we afford to be nonchalant about rising social and economic inequalities just because they did not make for TRP worthy debates? Or because it sounds monotonous and drab to dark suited CEO’s pontificating on India over cappuccino with the Swiss Alps in the background ? Free market capitalism is fine for growth , but can that enterprising engine fuel concentration of resources leading to a lopsided nation on a tilt?
One thing was obvious, not many CEO’s in that audience or I dare say as many parliamentarians have known India as much as Mr Rahul Gandhi has at least since his political debut in 2004. Even our media only does its annual Indian darshan rituals only come elections; when is the last time you saw a well known media personality comment on a communal conflagration in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh or farmer suicides in Gujarat’s Saurashstra region or the tribal violence in Kalahandi, Orissa ?? It is far easier to hang around in Lutyen’s Delhi with a crestfallen countenance making lengthy lamentations. . Gandhi is rewriting India’s script; a friend’s brilliant son doing MBA at Cornell , USA said he was overwhelmed. “ This is the kind of leader India needs”; he called to tell. Young students I know said he talks and thinks about India with “ care and concern. We trust him completely”. But you have to see Mr Gandhi in the heart of a fighting , determined, aspirational India in its woebegone interiors to understand his deep engagement with the aam aadmi ( common man) . Knowing the real India gives you a different quality of confidence, far beyond the cool aplomb of a sound byte manufacturing machine. Much more. On that day at CII, it showed. You know the people you need to lift up the income and quality of life curve, whom you represent, whose lives depend upon your delivery.
There are those prejudiced urban commentators who sit in five-star hotels over camembert soufflé and mock “ Rahul Gandhi and his discovery of India”. But the truth is that they will probably collapse in the sweltering heat if they go beyond the Bandra-Worli sea link. Mumbra, forget it. India is a complex country in a fascinating stage of its breakneck speed evolution. That’s why a Patrick French, William Dalrymple, Mark Tully, Amartya Sen and a host of other authors try and demystify it. Gandhi knows that the real India story is an endless quest, and its discovery is never ending, and even if at all you feel you figured out the intriguing puzzle it will be an ephemeral sighting , because by the time the geographical peregrinations are over, the country would have mutated into another dimension altogether.
His most telling observation was that India needed exponential solutions, not incremental ones given its extraordinary issues. The age of insouciant gradualism in effecting change was over. It was not about reforming India anymore; it was about transforming it. Implicit was the admission that governments ( including his own ) have a gigantic task ahead. So be it. On Centre-state relations Mr Gandhi hinted at the devolution of power , on the growing impact of the institution of panchayati raj, because the budgetary allocations of the Centre has little meaning if state governments do not energize their systems of delivery to the last mile for parochial reasons. Instead of talking NCTC he went on to explain the philosophical and the realpolitik tangle that cripples equations in our federal structure and impacts the common man. He avoided the bland cliché of the tiger versus the elephant analogy that is often used to describe us as a nation ; the beehive has that restless , indefatigable, kinetic passion about it. And a buzz too.
Mr Gandhi could happily let Congress take credit for young India’s remarkable journey since Independence, a few stats will suffice: 90% lived below the poverty line in 1947 ( 22% now),life expectancy was 27 years ( 70 years currently) and a tele-density of 1 as late as in 1994 ( India has 970 million mobile connections) . But he is perhaps the last man standing who wants cheap applause.
Bottomline; the solutions only come to those who are first aware of the problems that exist and are willing to acknowledge it . Usually, majority of mankind lives on rent-free space in a fools’ paradise, taking things at face value, happy with cosmetic solutions. Not for Mr Gandhi. In Mr Gandhi, India has a leader with responsible hands and a thinking head. And he seems to believe in leading India forward like a shepherd, one who keeps the flock together, watches their trajectory, strengths and movements, helps those struggling to climb uphill and brings those back into the fold who may have gone transitorily astray, but always giving equal time to all under his watchful guidance. He does so from behind, leading quietly and steadily but with unflagging commitment, never hesitating to run ahead and give some cautionary advice or a brief sermon if that be required. The shepherd thus lets his flock choose direction and become a part of the solution, part of the journey. For him the journey only ends when the entire flock reaches the comfort of home , ensured by his comforting presence and guidance. There is no discrimination or favor to any amongst his flock , the inclusiveness is universal.
Mr Gandhi is a shepherd who clearly walks the talk.
By Sanjay Jha
You can follow him on Twitter@JhaSanjay