After 10 years of refusing to face a big media interview, Rahul Gandhi spent an hour and a half on a leading television channel at prime time last night explaining how he wants to reform the way that India and his Congress Party are run.
His aim, he said, is to end rule by dynasties, introduce real democracy in Congress, “change the way we do politics.” empower women and youth, punish the corrupt, and build an internationally significant manufacturing industry.
No one could write a better manifesto for making the changes that India desperately needs, but Gandhi failed to explain and add substance to his wish list with detailed policies. When pushed into a corner by the interviewer, he slipped sideways by returning to his three priorities of changing politics, empowering women and energizing youth:
“What I want to do is going forward is basically focus on three things,” he said on the TimesNow TV channel. “Focus on empowering our people, truly empowering our people, giving them democratic rights within the political party.
“I want youngsters who come in and really, really push democracy in the party. I want to empower them and I want to make India, together with everybody, taking everybody together I want to put India on the manufacturing map, I want to make this the center of manufacturing in the world. I want to make this place at least as much as a manufacturing power as China.
“What I feel is that this country needs to look at the fundamental issues at hand, the fundamental political issue at hand is that our political system is controlled by too few people and we absolutely have to change the way our political system is structured, we have to change our parties, we have to make them more transparent, we have to change the processes that we use to elect candidates, we have to empower women in the political parties, that is where the meat of the issue is but I don’t hear that discussion, I don’t hear the discussion about how are we are actually choosing that candidate, that is never the discussion.”
He said (correctly!), “I am an anomaly in the environment that I’m in….I don’t get driven by the desire for power”. The “quest for power, the thirst for power” was not for him, but he wanted to use power “to reduce the pain that people feel, to reduce the pain that people feel as a result of the system that is predatory”
He also drew a sharp distinction between Congress and the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), saying that Congress believed in democratically spreading power while the BJP “believes power should be extremely concentrated in this country, few people should run this country and the large mass of this country should have no voice”. That sounded neat, but it dodged the fact that most national and local Congress leaders hold the same view as he ascribed to the BJP and do not want welcome his ideas.
He was sidetracked for much of the 90 minutes into arguments about headline-catching side issues such as the relative horror of anti-Sikh riots in 1984, when his father Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, and Gujarat’s anti-Muslim riots in 2002 where Narendra Modi, the BJP’s abrasive prime ministerial candidate, was (and still is) chief minister.
His choice of TV station for his first such interview was curious because, instead of going for what might have been a gentler and more amenable and constructive interview on a channel such as NDTV, he chose TimesNow and its abrasive chief editor, Arnab Goswami, who is famous for his high-decibel confrontational chat shows. Goswami was quiet and relatively courteous, indeed sometimes almost mockingly obsequiously so, but he was much more interested in trapping Gandhi into potential headline gaffes than exploring detailed policies.
What did emerge was a categorical statement by Gandhi that he wants to end dynastic rule. That logically means that he could be the last in the line of the Nehru Gandhi dynasty that overall has not served India well through successive generations – as I suggest in my book, IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality, which will be published soon.
Gandhi scarcely mentioned his mother Sonia, Congress’s president, and much of his condemnation of undemocratic political controls and tolerating corruption was an implicit criticism of what she has done and stood for during 16 years at the head of the party.
He also curiously said “I report to the Prime Minister” (when asked about tacking inflation), which he does not – structurally as vice president of Congress he reports to his mother and, in reality, Manmohan Singh reports to him.
On corruption, he claimed that “the Congress party, wherever we have had issues of corruption, we have taken action”. That was not true because corruption by ministers and officials was condoned for years till a popular outcry built up two or three years ago. He dodged this issue by talking about Right to Information legislation which was brought in by the government and certainly has had a major effect on the exposure of corruption.
On this, as on other subjects, his answers failed to address the shortcomings of the coalition run since 2004 by his mother as the political head and Manmohan Singh as prime minister. He would carry more conviction if he had started explaining his aims earlier in the ten years that he has been a member of parliament, and if he had managed to change what the Sonia-Singh administration did approach. He has however mostly stayed on the sidelines of national politics and is now producing his new approach at the tail end of a failing government, with just two months or so to go before the general election.
His sights are probably on following general election, but he will have to sharpen up his views and leadership skills if he is to succeed even then. As many would-be reformers – including his father – have found, India and Congress are very resistant to such fundamental changes that challenge the society’s basis of power and patronage.
A video of the interview is on http://www.timesnow.tv/Frankly-Speaking-with-Rahul-Gandhi—1/videoshow/4446831.cms and the full text is on http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Rahul-Gandhis-first-interview-Full-text/articleshow/29455665.cms
(John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s India correspondent. He also blogs at Riding The Elephant, which can be found at the bottom right of this page.)