The real makeover that Rahul Gandhi needs: Stop the anti-business rhetoric | The Financial Express

The real makeover that Rahul Gandhi needs: Stop the anti-business rhetoric

The problem with Rahul Gandhi’s approach isn’t its political or electoral inadequacy. It is in its contradiction of the very achievements that Congress takes pride in.

The real makeover that Rahul Gandhi needs: Stop the anti-business rhetoric
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi delivering a lecture at Cambridge Judge Business School as a Visiting Fellow, on Thursday. (ANI Photo)

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, under attack from the BJP-ruled Centre, has raised two prominent issues since the conclusion of his mammoth 4500-km Bharat Jodo Yatra. While his remarks on the state of Indian democracy and democratic institutions under the watch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have come for heavy criticism from the BJP, the ruling party has chosen to remain silent on the Adani issue. Perhaps, the more problematic of the twin allegations by Rahul, not just for the BJP but also for Congress.

The commentary on the state of India’s democracy and institutions came during his recently-concluded visit to London where he addressed UK Parliamentarians as well as a gathering at Cambridge University, among other engagements. The allegations against Prime Minister Narendra Modi over his alleged links and tacit backing to billionaire industrialist Gautam Adani in wake of the Hindenburg Research report came at the start of the first leg of the Budget Session of Parliament over a month ago.

Rahul’s remarks, made during his address to Lok Sabha, are problematic for more reasons than one. The Bharat Jodo Yatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir undertook a major image makeover of Rahul as a leader who was willing to step out of his comfort zone, leaving behind the luxurious confines of Delhi and hit the roads to understand the real issues concerning the people of India. In the process, it also decimated the BJP’s campaign against Rahul and also established him as the undisputable leader of the Congress for the foreseeable future.

Rahul Gandhi during the Bharat Jodo Yatra.

The anticipation, thus, was high when Rahul arrived in Parliament following the conclusion of his Yatra. People expected Rahul to provide insights from what he gained through the Yatra and were eager to hear how he planned to put his ideas for India into action. Rahul’s response, however, was rather different.

“People want to know about Modi-Adani relationship… From Tamil Nadu, Kerala to Himachal Pradesh we have been listening one name everywhere ‘Adani’. Across the entire country, it’s just ‘Adani’, ‘Adani’, ‘Adani’… people used to ask me that Adani enters any business and never fails… Youth asked us that Adani is now in 8-10 sectors and how his net worth reached USD 140 billion from USD 8 billion between 2014 to 2022,” Rahul said addressing the Lok Sabha on February 8, his first appearance on a prominent public platform after undertaking an exercise that has held immense historical importance in India’s polity.

While Rahul also touched upon the issue of unemployment, inflation and the fallacies in the Agnipath scheme, his allegations against the PM on the Adani issue remained the highlight.

Congress vs Rahul: A tale of contrasts

In its manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress described its economic policy as one based on “embracing the idea of an open and liberal market economy, creation of wealth, sustainable development, reduction of inequalities, and assurance of welfare of all sections of people”.

The economic reforms of 1991 undertaken by the government of then PM PV Narasimha Rao with Dr. Manmohan Singh as the Finance Minister opened several sectors of the economy for participation to the private sector and is still touted as one of the biggest achievements of the Congress. While the seeds of privatisation were laid by Late PM Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s, it was the new economic policy of 1991 that paved way for the emergence and growth of businesses in India.

Yet, with its relentless attacks against the PM for “protecting the interests” of big industrialists, the incumbent Congress leadership has inadvertently painted a picture of a party fundamentally opposed to the private sector, one that views businesses with suspicion. The irony here is that the reforms of 1991 championed by the Congress government have long been seen as an attempt to break free from the shadow of the ‘License Raj’ and the baggage of the Nehruvian era when the private sector was never seen as a trustworthy partner by the government.

Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi. (PTI Photo | File)

There are some stark contrasts one can spot between the statements issued by Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister and Rahul Gandhi post-2014 in this regard.

On disinvestment:

Rahul Gandhi in 2019– “This is not privatisation. It is a theft,” he said referring to the Modi government’s decision to dilute stake in Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited. “What is Mr Narendra Modi doing? He is helping his friends, his masters. His owners. Without them, Narendra Modi is nothing. He is a little balloon. His masters have hired him to do a job. It is a clear transaction. You will give us BPCL,” he said.

Manmohan Singh in 2012– “We will speed up the disinvestment process which will also revive our equity markets,” the then PM said while addressing the FICCI AGM.

Rahul Gandhi in 2021– The government is “selling India’s crown jewels”, he said, adding that the Modi government’s plan was aimed at creating monopolies in key sectors which will kill jobs and eliminate the informal sector.

Manmohan Singh in 2009– “Our government is encouraging the listing of public sector enterprises on the stock markets as this would unlock the true value of a company, improves its corporate governance standards and also help it in raising resources for funding future expansion plans,” the former PM had said.

On private sector:

Manmohan Singh in 2013– “Government is not the prime mover of growth. In a private sector-led economy – and I repeat, we are a private sector-led economy with 75% of investment being in the private sector which includes farmers, small businesses and the corporate sector – the driver of growth is indeed private investment. But the private sector needs an environment in which enterprise can flourish and create both jobs and stimulate growth. It needs an environment, which will ensure that this growth is inclusive. The environment today is not what it should be, and that is what the Government must correct,” he said addressing the CII National Conference.

Rahul Gandhi in 2022– Modi government is promoting a private sector monopoly in India, he said. “I think it is very dangerous for one company to control all airports, all the infrastructure. Private sector monopoly has never existed in this form. It has never existed with such a massive concentration of power and capital,” he said, further accusing the government of stifling the Opposition’s voices through the control of media using the same concentration of capital.

Manmohan Singh in 2005– “We are a coalition government, and that limits our options in some ways. Privatisation happens to be one such area. As somebody said, a politician before he can become a statesman has to remain in office long enough. So we have to make those compromises,” Singh said in an interview with Rajat K Gupta of McKinsey, published by the IBEF.

Former Congress President Sonia Gandhi with Rahul Gandhi, former PM Manmohan Singh in New Delhi. (PTI Photo | File)

Rahul Gandhi in 2022– During the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul said the Congress doesn’t agree with “rampant privatisation of government assets” and claimed that the party “would not allow” the privatisation of PSUs if voted to power.

The makeover Rahul needs

Rahul’s remarks in London, which has turned into a major flashpoint between the BJP and the Congress back home, treads into a similar territory of bad optics. While Rahul may be within his rights to raise the issues concerning India’s democracy and institutions on any forum he is entitled to, the message that he is sending to the electorate may not favour the Congress after all.

By crying wolf over “democracy under threat” and the judiciary, media and Election Commission “acting under pressure” on foreign soil, Rahul has played right into the BJP’s playbook. For a party that has managed to successfully brand nationalism as its biggest electoral weapon against its opponents, the consequences for the Congress a year before it heads into elections could be dire.

The problem with Rahul’s approach to the Adani issue wasn’t him missing the woods for the trees by choosing to attack the PM and score a quick political point. The problem also wasn’t that the issue he chose to highlight directly concerned 12 per cent (11 crore DEMAT account holders) of the population in a country with over 90 crore voters. Of course, there are individuals other than those who hold DEMAT accounts who are also investors, but that’s beside the point.

It is the irony in Rahul’s attack on BJP or the PM that is fundamentally problematic, not just for Rahul but also for Congress. Be it the “Suit-boot ki Sarkar” or “Adani-Ambani” jibes, or the recent allegations of the Modi government tweaking rules to favour the Adani-led conglomerate, the approach shows the Congress coming a full circle, contradicting the very achievements that it has always taken pride in.

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First published on: 14-03-2023 at 14:10 IST
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