Rahul Gandhi's Berkeley speech: More polish, less obfuscation, but not fully honest

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Rahul Gandhi delivering his speech at Berkeley. Photo: ANI
This article first appeared on Business Standard on 14.09.2017.


Why is it that politicians seem more human and even a bit more honest when they are addressing audiences abroad than in India? Narendra Modi plays with children, takes selfies, and beats the drum with gay abandon, thus displaying his human side, when abroad, while at home he displays stern seriousness. Rahul Gandhi, while delivering well-tutored lines in parliament (“suit-boot-ki-sarkar”) and hackneyed lines (“Paytm is Pay To Modi”) back home, comes across as more believable when speaking to audiences outside India.

Maybe this is the traditional Indian inferiority complex at play, where one feels the need for approval from white-skinned people, but whatever the reason, Rahul Gandhi’s speech at Berkeley, and his short presser after it, were noteworthy for the points he made, including the one he made about dynasty being the norm in Indian politics and business. Some of his statements deserve boos, but some deserve pats for the higher degree of candour he brought to issues.

Among the issues he spoke on were Modi’s pluses and minuses, where the UPA went wrong, the BJP’s “hate” politics, his willingness to take on the top job in the Congress, and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots where more than 3,000 Sikhs were massacred in displays of public anger over the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh guards.

This time Rahul Gandhi was far more articulate and coherent in the points he made than he has been in the past, but in some areas he appeared less than honest. Given below are the statements he made (in quotes), and the honesty quotient this writer attaches to them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being total honesty.

Dynasty politics:Most parties in India have that problem…. So, don’t give us the stick… Akhilesh Yadav is a dynast. Stalin is a dynast. (Prem Kumar) Dhumal’s son is a dynastEven Abhishek Bachchan is a dynast. That is how India runs. Don’t get after me because that is how the entire country is running. By the way, last I recall, Ambani’s kids were running their business and that was also going on in Infosys. That is what happens in India.

Comment: This was a good pre-emptive strike to deflect the dynasty question by being candid about its prevalence in India, but clearly the Rahul Gandhi of 2017 was less honest than what he was in 2014, when he gave Times Now this answer: “The real issue is that I didn't choose to be born in this family, I didn't sign up and say that I like to be born in this family. It happened, so the choice in front of me is pretty simple. I can either turn around and say, okay, I will just walk away from this thing and leave it alone, or I can say I can try and improve something. I am absolutely against the concept of Dynasty, anybody who knows me knows that and understands that. But you are not going to wish away Dynasty in a closed system, you have to open the system.”

Clearly, Rahul was more open about why he could not run away from dynasty in 2014 than now, when he simply dismissed it as inevitable in India. Nor did he take care to mention that two national parties – to the Left and Right of his own party – were substantially not run by dynasts. He also got one thing wrong: Infosys is not run by dynasts, unless his reference is to that one year when NR Narayana Murthy returned to the helm in 2013, with his son Rohan as his key assistant.

Honesty quotient: 3/10

On Modi’s strengths and weaknesses:Modi has certain skills. He is a very good communicator, probably much better than me. He understands how to give a message to three or four different groups in a crowd. So his messaging ability is very subtle and very effective.” (But) Modi “doesn’t converse with the people he works with” and he “doesn’t listen”.

Comment: This is a fair statement to make, though it is far from clear that Modi does not listen. It is possible that Modi listens only to some, but no one who has met him has come away with the idea that he does not listen. He is all ears when he chooses to listen to anyone and his ideas, but he may not listen to people he believes who have nothing to contribute. It is thus not unreasonable for Rahul to assume that he does not listen.

On UPA’s failures: Any party in India that is in power for 10 years will run into a problem. It is just natural…The vision that we had laid out in 2004 was designed, at best, for a 10-year period. And it was pretty clear that the vision that we had laid out in 2004… by the time we arrived in 2010-11, it was already not working. Somewhere around 2012, and I will say this, a certain arrogance crept into the Congress party and they stopped having that conversation (with people). …If you look at India from about 2012… and we are to blame for at least two to three years of that… India has basically lost its vision.” He added that the BJP had borrowed the UPA’s architecture, but “that architecture doesn’t work. We know it because it has stopped working.

Comment: This is a remarkable statement, and one both Modi and the nation should note. It is an admission that most of the things UPA did – including possibly the Food Security Act, and the Land Acquisition Act, both Sonia Gandhi’s legacies, may have been wrong, and Modi is mistaken in taking them forward. Even though Rahul did not mention these ideas, these were the only ones implemented after 2012, apart from Aadhaar, which began before that, and got taken to its logical conclusion by Modi. Even the Right to Education Act, which preceded 2012, could well be reviewed. This statement raises two possibilities: that Rahul is marking out his own approach to governance if he happens to lead the UPA to victory in 2019, and that he will seek to overturn some of the things his mother did because they are outdated and irrelevant. There is hope that India will change even under a UPA-3. For Modi, the message is starker. If Rahul himself is open to change in the things UPA-2 did, surely Modi needs to take him up on this and make relevant changes to the Act. Modi would do well to engage with Rahul’s Congress. Sonia’s Congress is out.

Honesty quotient: 9/10

On intolerance and violence: “Hatred, anger and violence and the politics of polarisation has raised its ugly head in India today. Violence and hatred distract people from the task at hand. Liberal journalists being shot, people being lynched because they are Dalits, Muslims, killed on suspicion of eating beef, this is new in India and damages India very badly. The politics of hate divides and polarises India, making millions of people feel that they have no future in their own country. In today’s connected world, this is extremely dangerous. It isolates people and makes them vulnerable to radical ideas.”

Comment: This is the Congress party’s standard political position and surely has its takers, and has elements of truth. But it ignores the new politics of aspiration that Modi has been able to engender through his politics and the anti-elitism that Modi embodies. Some of these tensions relate to a change in the power structure, where the old elites of Lutyens Delhi are being ignored, and new voices are being heard. In his own way, Rahul represents change, but his politics still relies on the old elite support. Also, he could also have acknowledged that lynchings and mob violence were not unknown even before 2014, as the Assam communal violence of 2012 showed, or the minority communalism now on display in Bengal suggests.

Honesty quotient: 5/10.

On the 1984 anti-Sikh riots: “I fully support any action that is taken against anybody who is carrying out violence. In fact, I am with them in their quest for justice, 100 percent. And if there is anything I can do to help them get justice, I am the first person who will do it.”

Comment: This is a safe, neutral statement to make without acknowledging the failures of his party and government in 1984, which did little to check the killings. Outside Delhi, anti-Sikh violence never got out of hand. Rahul’s statement does not address the real issue of Congress party involvement in those killings, and Rajiv Gandhi’s unwillingness to address the issue honestly, but it is at least more honest than the answer he gave Arnab Goswami in his TV interview of 2014, where he said: “First of all. I wasn't involved in the riots at all. It wasn't that I was part of it. The fact of the matter is that innocent people died in 1984 and innocent people dying is a horrible thing and should not happen. The difference between Gujarat and 1984 was that the Government of Gujarat was involved in the riots.”

Two obfuscations here. Nobody had accused Rahul of fanning the riots, so his disclaimer was an attempt deflect the blame from his father’s failures. Also, the attempt to claim that 2002 was worse than 1984 was whataboutery of the worst kind.

Honesty quotient: 4/10.

On his own political ambitions: “I am absolutely ready to do that (become Congress president). But the way our party works, we have an organisational election process that decides that… That is a decision that the Congress party has to make.”

Comment: This time he said he was “sure” he would take up the job, whereas in 2014, when asked if he was willing to be the Congress’s Prime Ministerial candidate, he went about denying it indirectly. In his Times Now interview of 2014, when asked about whether he would be the party’s PM candidate, he said that was not the process prescribed under the constitution. He deflected the question of whether he would be PM candidate by claiming that “the issue is basically how the Prime Minister in this country is chosen. The way the Prime Minister is chosen in this country is through the MPs. Our system chooses MPs & MPs elect the Prime Minister. It's respect for the process. In fact, announcing your PM prior to an election, announcing your PM without asking the members of Parliament, is not actually written in the Constitution.” Ho-hum.

Honesty quotient: 4/10.

On Kashmir militancy and PDP-BJP coalition: “When we started, terrorism was rampant in Kashmir. When we finished there was peace. By 2013, we had basically broken the back of terror.”

“The PDP was instrumental in bringing youth to politics, but the day PM Modi made an alliance with the PDP, he destroyed them.”

Comment: It is true that the PDP-BJP coalition has not worked since the PDP is fearful of its position in the valley and the BJP about Jammu. The net result has been a dangerous internal contradiction that the coalition has been unable to resolve.

However, this contradiction existed even during the PDP-Congress rule of 2002-08. The two agreed to sharing the chief ministership for three years each, but in the second term, when Congress was at the helm, and wanted to create a permanent shelter for Amarnath yatris, the PDP refused to help, and ended the coalition. The same Jammu-Kashmir Valley political contradiction surfaced and up-ended the Congress-PDP coalition. Rahul was right in his diagnosis of the PDP-BJP contradiction, but this fault line has always existed in J&K, and may not go away any time soon. The rise in militancy this time around was sparked by the killing of Burhan Wani last year, but it was botched in the beginning primarily because the PDP and BJP were unsure about how to deal with the aftermath.

Honesty quotient: 5/10.

All in all, Rahul Gandhi did a much better job than before, but, he was being less than candid in some areas. But then, maybe, this is what makes him a better politician today than what he was before.

The author is the Editorial Director of Swarajya. Earlier editor at Firstpost & Forbes India. You can reach him at @TheJaggi 

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

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