Rahul Missed A Trick in His Reply to Singapore Audience Member

It’s 2018. In common (mis)understanding socialism has failed. It’s an outdated ideology confined to the dustbin of history. For our shiny happy people [and especially for the shiniest happiest, ie NRIs] everything associated with the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru was a big error.

Non-aligned movement. Pooh. One should have followed Korea, Singapore, etc into the ‘embrace’ of America (curiously, Pakistan is not mentioned as an example in this regard).  Mixed economy. Disaster. Gave us the so-called Hindu rate of growth. Nationalisation of industry and five-year plans. Nonsense. Outdated economics. Ambaniji and Adaniji should’ve set the parameters of economic policy much earlier – the whole country would’ve glittered a la the IPL. And instead of the much derided MTNL we would’ve had ‘Jio’.

For the purveyors of the above ‘understanding’ of Indian history and society, the ideal nation state is represented by tiny Singapore. It’s orderly. It’s clean. It’s glittery. It’s shiny. It’s happy in being a protectorate of America. In short it is Paradise City (probably the name of a gated housing society in Gurgaon, which gets its vast aspirational value precisely in being a micro Singapore).

Rahul Gandhi’s Defence of the Family Brand

In Singapore, in 2018, the leader of India’s main Opposition party, the Congress, Rahul Gandhi was recently interacting with upper class members of the Indian diaspora. A fitting spokesperson of the demographic described above, one Prasenjit Basu, a self-described historian of Asia, asked Gandhi why (allegedly) the ‘growth rate’ of India has always been lower when ruled by the Gandhi family than by others.

If true, this statistic would in some ways count as one of the strongest commendations that the Nehru/Gandhi family has received in its storied history.

‘Growth rate’ by itself is at best an inadequate and at worst a highly misleading metric to measure a nation’s development.

Often, fast growth is achieved by wanton environmental destruction and enriching the richest in the country (especially big industry) at the cost of everybody else. If that didn’t happen quite so strikingly in Nehru/Gandhi tenure (leading to lower ‘growth rates’), that would partly explain the enduring popularity of the family brand.

Gandhi didn’t get into all that. He politely explained how his family and the Congress party has laid the foundations which led to the fast growth rate that the Indian economy has witnessed since the late 80s.

Basu wasn’t convinced, but that’s not to the point:  You don’t need to and cannot convince partisans. Gandhi put his point across reasonably well to the political fence-sitter. However, while Gandhi marshalled his facts decently, he made a significant error in political psychology.

Before he had begun speaking, another member of the audience rose to strongly argue in favour of the Congress party’s legacy, particularly that of PM Nehru.

This gentleman was arguing, with some vehemence and passion which makes for good political spectacle, that a lot that has happened in India and which has been good for Indians (particularly for our shiny happy NRIs) is due to the visionary policies of Nehru and his government.

For reasons best known to him and his army of highly credentialled advisors (usually the credentials have been acquired outside of politics), Gandhi responded by equating the passionate vehemence of this individual with the arrogant and self-satisfied Basu, by making a remark to the effect that while Basu thinks that the Congress did only wrong, the other guy thinks the Congress did only right, while people should be ‘balanced’ (ie, non-ideological?) in their view.

Gandhi and his team clearly feel that by responding in this manner, he hit a statesman-like note. This is shown by the vast circulation this clip has received from Congress handles on social media. I, on the other hand, cannot help thinking that Gandhi’s response, particularly in that heated context, would’ve been incredibly demoralising to the individual who was trying to defend the legacy of successive Congress governments.

While I appreciate Gandhi’s point that our political discourse is today far too polarised, political battles are to a large extent won based upon the morale of your troops.

In my view, Gandhi was wise in admitting that some mistakes might have been committed by the Congress and the Nehru/Gandhis in their long tenure.

When Rahul Erred on Congress’ ‘Growth Rate’ Policy

This portrays him as thoughtful, balanced, and forward looking – a man who wants to learn from the past and wants the best for the country.

The problem with his response lay in the tone, in the equivalence drawn between the ill-informed fulminations of Basu and the points made by the other gentleman.

The two positions are NOT equal.

The gentleman defending Nehru didn't claim at all that there were no mistakes made by Congress governments but only that the good that Indians have continued to enjoy as democratic citizens since independence is what they owe in large part to Nehru and his successors. Basu on the other hand only spoke about the allegedly slow growth rate.

The truth here does not lie in the ‘middle’ in this instance, as Gandhi suggested – it is rather skewed toward one side:

Mr Basu was wrong in fact, wrong in historical context and wrong in missing the massive challenges faced by the leaders of a newly independent country systematically stripped of its wealth by centuries of colonial exploitation. If India today boasts of one of the world’s largest economies and a proud democratic record, surely credit must go to the nation-builders in its first few decades of independence.

In the situation that we today find ourselves, with widespread misinformation, ahistoricity and sheer lack of interest in even knowing how the country reached the state that it is in (for both good and bad), people like this individual who was defending Nehru’s legacy are very rare. This is particularly so for the kind of technocratic audience that Gandhi was addressing. Such keepers of the faith should be defended and bolstered, rather than rebuked.

While it is undoubtedly crucial to appeal to the fence-sitter, it should virtually never be at the cost of demotivating one’s core, articulate, political network. Members of this network are after all the force multipliers of one’s political message.

Put another way, Gandhi would do well to remember that when he speaks publicly, he speaks not as an intellectual, but as the leader of a political formation and each of his words, his actions, his manner of speaking, the ways he chooses to connect with particular members of the audience, all send political signals both to his friends and to his foes.

One way to improve on this would be for Gandhi to bolster his close advisory team with some strongly political and ideological people, even if they might not carry the weight of ‘world class’ credentials in business, technology, management, economics, etc.

Sometimes political credentials can be just as important in a good advisor, especially since Gandhi has, after all, chosen politics as his vocation.

(The writer is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Missouri, USA. He has taught philosophy at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. He can be reached at @ritwik_agrawal. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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