Rahul Gandhi’s interview to Arnab Goswami is bound to be the most widely viewed. Perhaps every English-speaking Indian could end up watching it. Consequently, the impression it leaves behind will be long-lasting if not actually indelible. In which case what are the lessons Rahul Gandhi must learn?
He sees himself as a reformer with almost missionary zeal. His target is the Indian system. Alas, his first problem is his manner and style.
Rahul Gandhi adopts a lofty professorial, at times even philosophical, approach but doesn’t have the intellectual content to pull it off. As a result, he speaks in generalities and sounds vague if not vacuous. This only reinforces doubts about his political skills.
Margaret Thatcher was an earlier politician who saw herself as a reformer of the system. But she was a master of detail and argument, grounded with examples from ordinary people’s lives. Critics may have feared her zeal but never doubted her political instincts. In Rahul Gandhi’s case you might admire his commitment to reform yet seriously question his ability to deliver.
A second lesson concerns his skills as an interviewee. He needs to either answer questions honestly or find a more credible and clever way of avoiding them. On Monday, he simply talked about other things, often repetitively if not also dully, which suggested he didn’t know how to handle the question. Whether that was inexperience or ineptitude is irrelevant. Neither becomes a prime ministerial hopeful.
Beyond all this, Rahul Gandhi needs to find answers to the obvious questions that arise out of the things he says. Someday someone will raise them and he will have to respond.
If deepening RTI and empowering women is so critical to reforming the system how does he explain the Manmohan Singh government’s attempts to weaken the RTI Act and reluctance, or refusal, to credibly push reservation for women in the Lok Sabha? These are contradictions that need to be addressed.
More critically, if reforming the Indian system is his central mission, then why is he silent about the need to push growth back to 8 or 9% levels? Nothing could be more certain to create jobs for the young or empower women than an expanding economy which puts money in people’s pockets.
If boosting manufacturing is a real aim, how does he explain UPA’s failure to push reforms, its Vodafone error and complete silence on restrictive labour laws?
Finally — but, remember, this is the millstone around his neck — Rahul Gandhi needs a credible response to 1984. The key issue is: how can he claim Rajiv Gandhi’s role in 1984 was different to Narendra Modi’s in 2002?
If Modi was reluctant to quell the riots, Rajiv delayed calling out the army. If Modi claimed every action has a reaction, Rajiv propounded the big tree theory. If Modi demonised the Muslims, Rajiv won an election creating fear of the Sikhs. If Modi sheltered Maya Kodnani, Rajiv Gandhi included HKL Bhagat in his Cabinet.
The only critical difference is that Modi in 2002 was in full control of his government whilst Rajiv, in 1984, very definitely was not. The riots happened hours after he was sworn-in. The PMO, following Indira’s assassination, was at sixes and sevens. But does Rahul accept that?
No doubt Mr Gandhi will give many more interviews. Hereafter his aim will be to dilute the damage the first has done. He will only succeed if he accepts the reasons why Monday night went so horribly wrong.
Views expressed by the author are personal