Corporate Apr 4, 2013
For the first time ever, Rahul Gandhi made an impression with those who count - the people of India Inc. For the first time ever, he was cogent and gave us an insight into how he thought of the country and its problems.
He may not have a clear answer, or even a workable solution, but he did have a clear view on how India works or doesn't. The big statement he made was a simple one: We are not an elephant. "We are a beehive." He got a well-deserved standing ovation for his views at the Confederation of Indian Industry in Delhi today.
In comparing India with China, and why India does not seem to work as efficiently as its biggest neighbour, Gandhi said India was not really a top-down economy. It fizzes from below. It is a buzzing beehive and the beehive has its own power, its own complexity. And our solutions lie in realising our strength as a beehive.
A beehive's power comes from its ability to act collectively by giving each member of the hive a voice and a chance to do his or her thing. This is where the state has failed, where the system is jamming things up.
He was clear that the answer to India's problems lay in empowering the lowest man - so that the beehive buzzes with greater purpose.
Gandhi's CII audience gave him full marks for his performance, especially in the post-speech Q&A session, even though he did not offer any promises on how the UPA government or his own party will make major changes to improve the current climate of despondency in India Inc. But he did give them a guided tour of what he saw as the country's core issue - disempowerment. In the process, he offered a viable counter-argument to those who see Narendra Modi as the answer - even without naming him.
As Gandhi told it, there was no magic bullet for India's problems and one man could not solve it anyway. "Take one man, and give him all the power to solve our problems - and it's not going to happen."
But, equally, he debunked the Prime Minister's statement yesterday at the CII that industry should keep its faith in government. Gandhi was dismissive of this, too: "If you expect Manmohan Singh to solve our problems, it's not going to happen."
The answer, he said, lay in empowering people. "I am irrelevant." Repeating an earlier statement about why his becoming PM was not important, he said the problem was the political system was not responding to the aspirations of the people. "The system is closed."
He made this point even in connection with industry. He said business and government did not have a proper institutional mechanism to deal with real issues. The system operates informally, where if you are "a friend of Montek (Singh Ahluwalia)" you may be heard, but industry as a whole does not have a proper institutional mechanism to work with government for the country's betterment. "Our political system is not responding (even) to you."
And the same issues bother the common man. "Open up the voices of the Indian people and see what happens."
On the India-China comparison, Rahul had another point to make: the difference lay in how we applied power. Given its authoritarian and centralised structure, China's power was obvious. India's was more muted, and softer. Power was applied more tangentially and indirectly. "We have much more power than we think."
The apparent chaos of India, he said, was in tune with our beehive nature. "We are always complaining about everything," but this was because we were dealing with the daily noises of a complex and democratic system.
The chaos and complexity of India "drives foreigners crazy", but Rahul Gandhi said noise was natural when we are dealing with complexity."
Foreigners want a simple solution, but "our environment is not simple."
This is why Gandhi believes that questions about his becoming PM should be subsumed in the larger question:"how do we give people voice." That is the only question that is relevant for him.
The CII event was an impressive coming-out party for Rahul Gandhi in terms of articulation, but some of the questions will not go away.
First, good insight and analysis are no substitute for action. As the scion of India's most powerful political family and with his own government in place for nine years, why did these ideas never get implemented?
Second, talk about empowering the last man is fine, but the UPA's actions were more about throwing freebies in the direction of the aam aadmi - in fact the UPA's flagship schemes are the exact opposite of empowerment since they were shoved down the states' throats.
Three, Rahul Gandhi, of course, wants power devolved even below the state level - to panchayats - but the question is has he deployed this model even in states ruled by the Congress?
Four, Rahul's "beehive" analogy certainly is a new idea, but he did not address the central question of why the hive is busy stinging the Congress party for its failures on governance.
Five, the Gandhi scion talked of listening even to one's worst enemy in order to find solutions, but why hasn't he done anything to put this ideal into practice - by talking to the BJP and its leaders on how the Indian beehive can be made to buzz more musically.
But net-net, Rahul Gandhi did make his points more effectively that he ever did before.
More From R Jagannathan.