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Reading Rahul right

If Rahul’s optimism is justified, then we may see a Congress that is very sure of what it wants. And if the Congress does do badly, then Rahul’s tone suggests that it would rather sit in the Opposition than compromise. Vir Sanghvi writes.

india Updated: May 07, 2009 01:30 IST
Vir Sanghvi

So much has been written — and said on television — about Rahul Gandhi’s Delhi press conference that we may be in danger of missing the point of Rahul’s remarks. Yes, of course, he came across as bright, personable, articulate, mature etc., but the substance of his answers may be more significant.

First of all, though the media are hailing this as a coming-out ball for the crown prince, this is not how Rahul himself sees it. He has repeatedly said that he is uncomfortable with being called “yuvraj” and this is hardly his first interaction with the media during the campaign.

He has held two important and newsworthy press conferences before — in Kochi and Kolkata. And just last week he had two lengthy informal meetings with special correspondents and bureau chiefs in Delhi.

This press conference did not appear out of nowhere. It is part of a more general policy of engaging with the media.

The running theme of most of Rahul’s remarks has been “let’s forget the rhetoric and get to the basics”.

This message ran through Tuesday’s press conferences as well. Rahul has little patience with the issues that crop up during campaigns (Bofors, Swiss banks etc.) and believes that they are irrelevant. The real issues, he says, are development and poverty alleviation. Everything else is a distraction.

In this sense, he is echoing the concerns of his father (whom he quoted) and his mother.

Unlike his mother however, he is more sure of what the answers are. Like his father, he has a clear view of the direction that government policy should take and will say so. Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to have dismissed the Left’s economic ideas as categorically as Rahul did.

Rajiv Gandhi, on the other hand, was as clear about his impatience with the Left’s economic policies. (Remember that famous remark about how the only Marx the Left really followed was Groucho? CPI(M) MPs were not sure who this Groucho person was but sensing that they were being insulted, they walked out of Parliament in protest anyway).

It is in keeping with his let’s-cut-to-the-chase approach that Rahul used the press conference to reiterate something the

UPA often seems to have forgotten: your strength comes from your size.

He made it clear that the Congress’s primacy in any future coalition would be based on its size. If anybody got more seats — Sharad Pawar, the Left etc. — he could head the government.

But as long as the Congress was the single largest party in any coalition, it had the right to lead it.

This is his mother’s view as well but she has rarely been as forthright as Rahul.

Though some commentators have interpreted Rahul’s praise of potential allies as an invitation to one and all, it is actually far more nuanced.

Rahul’s message is that, should it be the largest party in the Lok Sabha, the Congress will be willing to accept other allies. These could be the obvious ones (the Left), the possible allies (Nitish) or even the very unlikely partners (the TDP, whose very raison d’etre is anti-Congressism).

On the Left, he said that though there were differences (economic policy, the nuclear deal etc.) an alliance was based on points of agreement not disagreement. The same presumably would apply to Nitish (even though there are actually fewer points of difference there).

The subtext to all this is that the Congress will stick to its core policies (which he thinks is justified because of its size) but that it is open in its choice of allies, if they accept this ideological firmness on the Congress’s part.

Thus Rahul was being both conciliatory and firm at the same time.

Should the Congress not emerge as the single largest party, then all this is academic. But if Rahul’s optimism is justified, then we may see a Congress that is very sure of what it wants. And if the Congress does do badly, then Rahul’s tone suggests that it would rather sit in the Opposition than compromise.

As far as Rahul is concerned, the party’s real interests lie in the long-term, not just the here and now.