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A first hand account of listening to Rahul Gandhi and his ideas at LSE

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Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar
Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar
Mrittunjoy is a physicist, activist, writer, social worker and philosopher.

(This article is based on my views on someone who is projected as a future Prime Minister of India, in sections, that have been put devoid of satire, while certain other sections of this article are satirical. The intent is not as much to take a personal jibe at anyone as it is to highlight the fallacies in the arguments put forward by Mr. Gandhi in the interaction event held at the London School of Economics on 24th August 2018, where I went as a delegate representing Cambridge University. This article is not to either support or negate any individual or political party, but to understand some nuances that I feel like discussing.)

Rahul Gandhi came to study at Cambridge shortly after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi: a point he made it a point to highlight recently. The “red book”, which lists Cambridge University members, lists him as: “VINCI, Rahul T MPHIL95”.

An interesting alias (albeit probably required for security reasons). What I recently observed though and that stuck in my mind was this smile of his, much like the Mona Lisa smile, that made an appearance at his appearance in London School of Economics (LSE). Enigmatic and, in his case, somewhat mistimed.

He was invited for a session on ‘Perspectives’, an interaction session in the Townhall format. Except that it was, in spurts, a monologue and briefly a dialogue and Q&A, punctuated by some dramatic walks across the stage (to show a more approachable-in-the-Clinton-esque-way side?) as he touched upon everything from social justice to development and secularism.

It was on a topic of concern and interest to many (most probably when he was discussing agricultural reforms) that he let slip the smile. A fleeting moment. What it, however, showed was that this was a man who appears to be well-meaning and probably a genuine, sincere person at heart, but someone who is arguably not quite equipped in various ways to commandeer India on the troubled waters it faces on many fronts.  In this short article, I will look at what all was problematic in what he said, besides looking at the (few) positives in his speech.

The Brighter Side?

Mr. Gandhi is definitely trying. He is trying very hard to understand the nitty-gritties and nuances of administration and statecraft. He is trying quite hard to explore topics that he would need to if he ever happens to become the Prime Minister of India.

I recently read an article that said that he is apparently on a massive drive to educate himself. Educate himself on issues relating to four major topics: agriculture, job creation, health and education. These four areas are said to be the chief thrust of the Congress manifesto and of the government if a Congress-led force is elected to power next year. The Congress president has apparently held in-depth discussions with subject experts and stakeholders over the past six months and many more are lined up.

Commendable!

In his speech at LSE, he mentioned the need to create jobs and support farmers in the best manner possible. He also sought a society where dissent is allowed and discussions are free-flowing. Not to forget, he mentioned the need for decentralization of power.

All commendable again!

Except that his was a monologue in reaction. A reactive commentary on what was not right and what needs to be changed, which is important in its own right. And possibly that could suffice as the only content of your speech, if not for the ardent desire of some leaders to see Mr. Gandhi lead the country. Except if you were not asked to frame the policies and programs for the people of the country. Then one needs to be proactive and not reactive all the time. So let us see some of the traces of proactive ideas that he mentioned.

He did mention about the need to allow the farmers to decide for themselves what they feel would help them best. When asked about the Swaminathan Report, which is a seminal report on changes in the agriculture sector, he repeated this idea. Allowing farmers to decide for themselves is important for a participatory democracy and no one denies that.

But there are certain problems when one makes that the primary driver of policy. As much as farmers can know the ground realities and local issues that they face, there are structural reforms and technological inputs that sometimes need to be tackled in a larger way. Possibly even top down in cases. And that is not necessarily a bad thing if the result of the same is beneficial to the farmers.

Yes, GM crops did not succeed in Maharashtra. Yes, a fair few structural reforms have not yielded optimal results in recent times. But then again many points raised during the Green Revolution were top-down and not bottoms-up. They were a strategist’s overhaul of the way in which agriculture was carried out and the manner in which it was supported. Rahul Gandhi went on to discuss how imports were a convenient way to sideline fundamental systemic reforms required within agriculture that the Modi government has been evading this way.

Not quite!

I would like to bring the readers attention to the recent ‘Agriculture Exports’ policy of the current NDA government. Addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort on the occasion of India’s 72nd Independence Day, Modi spelt out pro-farm measures taken during four years of his government, the cornerstone being the bold move to fix the minimum support price (MSP) of crops at least 1.5 times of the cost of production.

The government recently announced the minimum support price of kharif (summer-sown) crops and hiked the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for paddy by a record Rs 200 per quintal. The MSPs of other kharif crops were also raised sharply to help fulfil its poll promise to give farmers 50% more rate than their cost of production. Signs are encouraging.

There are new avenues that farmers are engaging in, like blue revolution and bee-keeping. Solar farming is also on the rise. India is currently the second largest fish producer in the world and is poised to soon occupy the top position! Not to forget, agricultural exports are also at their highest in three years with commodities worth $38.74 billion exported in the first quarter of this fiscal year.

He also mentioned that India faces a full-blown job crisis but very little on how he wanted to solve it. I have heard (and read) recently that he seeks to promote small-scale businesses and firms. But a substantial road-map still remains to be seen. He also touched upon healthcare without saying much on what need be done according to him. One can only hope that he does not try to link MRI machines across the country, as he once famously wanted to!

Partition, Dynastic Politics and 2019

Not many Congress chiefs had it in them to admit that partition was a mistake. Rahul Gandhi did so at the LSE event! I have always felt so as well since before 1947, every village and every city in India had Hindus and Muslims living together in harmony. Before the Raj started using communal tension as a tool for their divide-and-rule policy, there was a certain Hindustani culture that borrowed elements (such as cultural, linguistic and political) from various people including Hindus and Muslims. However, since there is no point of pondering over that now, this simple act of admission of a mistake that was done under a Congress government was interesting and quite mature of Rahul Gandhi.

The very first question that the fairly Left-leaning Dr. Mukulika Banerjee, who was conducting the conversation, posed was regarding what made Rahul Gandhi eligible and good for the post of the president of the Indian National Congress, besides his family. He began discussing his familiarity with violence. Violence meted out to his family members, including the assassinations of his grandmother and father.

As much as that is unfortunate, I personally believe that it does not make him eligible to be propped up the way he has been in a farcical display of internal democracy in the Indian National Congress (where he was ‘elected’ president unopposed). I feel the reason a Gandhi has to be president of the party for the party to survive is due to the various local satraps and leaders who would never stay together, given their egos and personal ambitions, unless brought together by the historically powerful Gandhi family. That is the reality of the matter and I would not mince words to state this.

However, the ironic bit is that the element that may keep the party together very well may lead to doom for the party as well, if electoral performances are to be seen. A student from Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh once famously approached the Guinness Book of World Records to include the Rahul Gandhi’s name for losing a record 27 elections!

The question remains that even though Congress-led governments have taken certain very good initiatives (such as MNREGA and RTI), why is that people do not want to repose faith in them? Is it because of the feeling that they have not done enough in the decades of rule that they had? Or is it just because of the  flurry of scams that the last Congress-led government had? I would say it is a bigger problem, as I was discussing with a friend of mine – Tanweer. It is a problem that liberals and the Left faces worldwide. The problem of the lack of myth to mobilize people around.

Human beings have historically mobilized brilliantly around myths and myth-making. Nationalism is a human construct and myth that immediately evokes a strong sense of belonging-ness, and the Right taps into this to gain support of people. The Congress at one point had the Indian independence struggle as what drove people en masse into its folds. But after independence, the lack of ideas, direction and myths is a serious problem that the Congress has been facing in varying degrees over the years ever since Indira Gandhi was at the helm of matters.

A party that is very good at organization and mobilizing people has been the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), the ruling party of India. Rahul Gandhi touched upon the RSS-BJP combine, saying that in the 2019 General Elections, it shall be BJP on one side and the entire Opposition on the other. Given the state performances in recent times and the presence of allies in the NDA fold, this may not necessarily be a cause of alarm among BJP circles.

What was, however, more interesting was the way in which Rahul Gandhi mentioned that the Congress and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are ideas; ideas that encapsulate older ideas that have been in conflict for ages; a conflict between the idea of centralization of power and knowledge (as, he purported, the RSS and BJP were prone to do) and the decentralization of power and knowledge (that he said the Congress stood for). This grand statement needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

The Congress fold has never been this rosy with internal democracy having been broken as much by Mahatma Gandhi (during Netaji’s ouster and the making of Nehru as India’s first Prime Minister  even though the state units of the Congress wanted Sardar Patel to have the position) as by Indira Gandhi (who broke away from the original Congress party when she faced dissent).

Power has been concentrated in the Nehru-Gandhi family for over four decades now. On the other hand, problematic as some of BJP’s positions are, it has one of the most well-oiled organizations on the ground. The level of internal democracy is a tad bit more arguably, although even within the BJP there are issues such as the interference of the Sangh at times, which has been both good (when leaders  in the BJP became too haughty or obstinate on policy matters that may not have been productive) and bad (in being the big-brother-figure who appointed people within the BJP sans elections for those positions) at various points.

2019 seems to be heading Modi’s way, albeit with a possible lowering of seats atleast in states like Uttar Pradesh, and sources within the party mention that this is understood within the party as well. What can be a face-saver for the Congress is an alliance of federal state-level parties that have flourished.

Decentralization, Federalism and Legislators

Rahul Gandhi repeatedly highlighted the importance of decentralization and federalism. Following on from the discussion above, this seems to be the only way in which the BJP may be countered. However, bitter memories of alliances in the mid 1990s could ring alarm bells in certain circles. The country faced a period of instability and political volatility. Only time will tell what shall happen in the 2019 elections.

Saying that BJP is either oblivious or deliberately evasive on the topic of ‘federalism’ will be a gross misrepresentation of facts. In fact, Modi has been quite a proponent of federalism himself, having emerged as a state leader first. His recent overhaul of the Planning Commission to institute the NITI Aayog is a step that reinforces this idea. All the Chief Ministers of the states are part of this initiative, and in fact this dedication to decentralization is often said to be the Achilles Heel of this initiative since the elaborate discussions and dialogue on various topics can be slow and a tad bit inefficient at times.

Today, even though the Congress has strong state leaders in some states of India (and, in fact, survives because of them), they have lost the organization strength and capability to either learn about the people’s concerns or communicate their ideas and policies effectively to the masses. There was a time when the Sewa Dal was the cadre-based wing of the Congress that had an eerily-similar uniform as the RSS but today it has no presence and relevance. Even on question raised on organization, there was no mention of the Sewa Dal by the Congress president!

Rahul Gandhi spoke of empowering the youth and having more smart people in the party, in particular, and politics, in general, but as someone who just about belongs to that section of society, I do not find the signs within the Congress encouraging. The apparent need to align with the Nehru-Gandhi family to succeed in the party is problematic. India no longer has a monarchy and yet has a new-age monarchy in this dynastic rule, of sorts, that continues. Today leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot and Jitin Prasad may be as good as Rahul Gandhi, if not better in certain ways, but they do not seem to have a chance to ever reach the top within the party, even on merit. That is the most problematic part of the Congress and an element that makes the party archaic in its projection.

Rahul Gandhi also touched upon the idea of legislators and the need for empowering them. He said that the Members of Parliament (MPs) are not given as much powers as they should have and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is running the show. Faux pas! The constitution has checks and balances for this to never be the case and I personally feel that Rahul Gandhi got confused between the legislature and the executive.

Some people do purport that the executive is being run by the PMO but that allegation has never been put on the legislature, probably and simply because it is not possible. Not only will there be a massive uproar in the parliament but the government can be brought to court if this were the case. It was surprising that no one raised an objection on that (I could not since the coordinators had a certain tendency of selecting LSE students for Q&A, haha; sanitised much?).

He definitely needs to get a course on the wings of the government! The problem with the level and quality of debate in the parliament is as much due to the disturbances created within as much as it is due to the purported lack of powers in the MPs.

In conclusion

As much as I appreciate the manner in which Rahul Gandhi raised red flags (no pun intended) on problems with the Right to Information (RTI) Act under the BJP government and a general concern with the state of affairs in the country, I simply failed to get a coherent action plan that he and his party will pursue to lead the country to the grandiose ideas of inclusive development that they seek.

Forget about questions of decolonisation, proportional representation and the Bangladeshi refugee problem (all of which I wanted to ask but could not due to the manner in which the Q&A was held), Rahul Gandhi was unable to tell me what India under Rahul Gandhi will do on the job front, on the issue of accessible healthcare for all, on the question of education for all and the proper enforcement of RTI (which remains a problem).

Rahul Gandhi may be proud that Indian MPs in the UK parliament are involved in making laws in a parliament that once made the laws for the functioning of India, but there is a lot there needs to be done to also present a coherent foreign policy by the Congress. Not to forget, the reason the answer to the question raised on when the next women prime minister will be seen in India is probably not soon is because of the encumbering dynastic politics of the Congress, as it stands.

Surely, there remains a lot behind the enigmatic Mona Lisa smile of Rahul Vinci. What remains to be seen is how much substance there is in the enigma that he remains.

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Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar
Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar
Mrittunjoy is a physicist, activist, writer, social worker and philosopher.
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