G R O U N D   Z E R O

Rahul Gandhi and the importance of being earnest
When Rahul pushed aside his written text and spoke extempore at the CII meet, it was apparent we were witness to a rare moment. He had finally stood up — now he must make himself be counted.
Raj Chengappa

Raj ChengappaWhen Rahul Gandhi, in his address at the annual conference of the Confederation of Indian Industry in New Delhi last week, referred to his days as a student at Harvard University in 1991, I recalled an incident I had kept to myself. It was just coincidence that I was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard the same year as Rahul was an undergrad, but we never met on campus.

There was an occasion though for me to do so but in the saddest of circumstances. News of his father Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination had come in and the magazine I worked for called me to do an exclusive on how Rahul was taking it. I felt that in his hour of grief Rahul needed to be by himself and declined to meet him for his reactions or write on the subject.

I met Rahul almost a decade later when he began his foray into Indian politics. I recall we discussed the issue of alleviating hunger and poverty in the country. As we differed on the interpretation of Amartya Sen’s approach on the topic, I sent him a book in which the famed economist has enunciated his thinking. Rahul didn’t acknowledge the letter. We then became nodding acquaintances at ceremonial functions that both of us happened to attend.

Tribune Photo: Mukesh Aggarwal

I had watched Rahul’s progress as a politician from the sidelines, as most of India did. He had by then acquired the image of a leader reluctant to take on the onerous responsibilities his party wanted him to shoulder. He was articulate in a staccato fashion and was initially prone to sharp outbursts. His press conferences were controlled affairs and in Parliament there were only a few notable interventions that he made. After his party’s disastrous performance in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, he seemed to have withdrawn into his shell.

Before the CII speech, perhaps the most significant vocalisation of his vision was at the Chintan Shivir of the Congress Party held in Jaipur in January, when he was elevated as vice-president of the party. Rahul talked touchingly of how his mother Sonia Gandhi had come to his room the previous night and cried on his shoulder because, as he said, “she knew that the power that so many people seek is actually a poison. The only anti-dote was to use it to empower the people of India.”

I had gone to listen to Rahul’s address at the CII meet out of curiosity and with the minimum of expectations. As it was his first major address to India Inc, many felt he would stick to reading out from a prepared speech. But when he pushed aside his written text and spoke extempore it was apparent that we were witness to a rare moment in the making of a national leader, a sign that Rahul was finally coming into his own.

Admitted, Rahul’s presentation was jerky, even stilted at the beginning. And that his efforts to make it anecdotal — à la Barack Obama — for the most part didn’t quite get the response he wanted. Where he excelled, though, was in the question and answer session in which he stopped being nervy and articulated his vision of India with a rare candour and earnestness that made compelling listening.

There were multiple messages that Rahul sent out, most of them unexceptionable. Like his father, Rahul appeared disdainful of the current venal political structure. As he rightly put it, a little more than 5,000 people’s representatives, that included Members of Parliament and the legislative Assemblies, determined the fate of a billion plus. Instead, he pushed hard for making the ‘third tier’ of governance — the Panchayati Raj system — the key driver of change. Like Mahatma Gandhi, he advocated empowering grassroots institutions to build the nation.

Rahul’s vision of India was that of a truly inclusive nation where power flowed from bottom up, where the poor, Dalits, tribals and the minorities felt they were part of the great tidal force pushing India upward, that the policy of alienating communities had to be stopped, that our education system must discard its obsolete practices and impart skills that would get people jobs and that India needs impartial, professional and ruled based governance.

Perhaps Rahul’s most memorable lines were when he said, “We have to move on in this country from the old notion of a guy coming on a horse and everything will be fixed. It is not so. Give all the powers to me, give all the powers to one individual you want, he cannot solve the problems of a billion people. Give the power to the billion-plus people and the problems will be solved instantly... I am irrelevant. I am one out of the billion Indians.” Rahul has finally stood up — now he must make himself be counted.





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