Rahul Gandhi on Thursday offered a rare insight into his vision for the country in a 75-minute speech to industrialists that was spare on specifics but notable for its chatty style and use of imagery to emphasise the idea of inclusive growth.
The Congress vice-president, seen by many as potential prime minister if the United Progressive Alliance were to return to power in 2014, also appeared to take a dig at Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, a man many feel could be the Opposition BJP’s candidate for the country’s most important job.
The 42-year-old Rahul, clad in his trademark white khadi kurta-pyjama, told a Confederation of Indian Industry meeting the development model of India should be designed on the principles of a “beehive” where the stakes and benefits of growth are evenly spread among the poor and the rich.
But unlike a “beehive which gives every member a voice”, the system in India is “clogged” and the voices of most people are not heard. The answer to these problems lay in empowering the lowest man, he said.
“We have to move away from the idea of the guy on the horse who is going to come charging through and India is going to be fixed. It’s not,” he said — a remark a senior Congressman later told HT was aimed at Modi, who is very popular with industry.
Rahul was silent on two crucial issues on which the UPA has consistently faced flak: corruption and the slowing economy. Critical second-generation economic reforms — seen by many as the UPA’s last hurrah in the remaining months of its second term in power — also went without a mention, apparently to avoid any clash with the government's policy positions.
But walking up and down the stage with a hand microphone to create an atmosphere of informality in a room full of suits, the Gandhi scion built on his pet theme of inclusiveness.
"The biggest danger is excluding people - women, the minorities, Dalits, tribals. Our economic vision must be more than money, it must be about compassion. Embracing the excluded is essential," he said.
Even including a sharp slowdown this year, the Indian economy has grown at an average of nearly 8% a year since 2004, and Rahul credited part of this growth to the focus on inclusion that has lowered social tension.
"India has grown faster under UPA because we have greatly lowered tensions between communities and made growth inclusive. India will move forward with inclusive growth that embraces everyone. Inclusive growth is a win-win for everybody," he said, stressing that pro-poor and industry-friendly policies were not necessarily mutually exclusive.
He also addressed India's rivalry with its booming neighbour to the north, China.
"China applies power by hand," he said. India on the other hand applies people's power - the power of the mind. "We have much more power than we think," he added, underlining the importance of social harmony for growth.
"India is complex. China is simple. And that is why India can't give simple answers when the West and other investors demand them," he said.
Business leaders were effusive in their praise for the address.
"It was an outstanding speech... a level 5 speech. He understood the importance of technology and inclusion... gives us hope as future leader," said Sunil Bharti Mittal, chairman, Bharti Airtel.
More than a couple of others said the speech "came from the heart".
But the BJP was distinctly unimpressed. "It was confusion confounded. It was also a lacklustre speech without any direction or clarity. And Modiphobia was also clearly visible," said spokesman Prakash Javadekar.