Joined: 28 March 2007
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to Devil's Advocate. How impressive was Rahul Gandhi's speech to the Confederation of Indian Industry? That's the key question I should raise today with one of India's most highly regarded, modern historian Ramachandra Guha. Ramachandra Guha, in January you described Rahul Gandhi as a well intentioned debutant. In December, you said he was completely mediocre with no original ideas and you suggested that he should find another profession. After his speech on Thursday, have you changed your mind or reconfirmed your opinion?
Ramachandra Guha: Well I really haven't changed my mind. But I would now only stress on the well intentioned. He scales across in his speech as a charming likeable young man, more so in the Q&A. Because a speech, as you know Karan, is prepared by his advisor, not by him. So, he came across as a likeable sincere chap, but confused. I was impressed by how well intentioned he is. I still don't think he is capable of running this country. I don't think he is particularly a hard working or focused politician. But he certainly came across likeable in a way that certainly few politicians do.
Karan Thapar:Would you say that he is still mediocre and he still should look for another profession?
Karan Thapar:So, he is stuck?
Ramachandra Guha:So, he is stuck and we are stuck. So, I withdraw that advice because you can't really find a new profession at 44.
Karan Thapar: Because of his age he can't find another profession but if his age wasn't problem, you would have advised that he should?
Ramachandra Guha: Well, I would have certainly advised that the Congress get a better leader.
Karan Thapar: As you heard that speech on Thursday, did you see a clear vision of India unique to Rahul Gandhi or did you see a confusion of different bits and pieces comprising anecdotes and parables, stories about pradhans or migrants?
Ramachandra Guha: Well, a much of the latter. But a mix of confusion, and a halting and a clumsy presentation. There were two clear ideas which are not his, one is his, may be his, the other is the Congress party. I think there was a message of pluralism and diversity.
Karan Thapar: And the second?
Ramachandra Guha: And the second, when he kept on saying we must listen. This could have been a barbed remark on Narendra Modi who only talks industrialist.
Karan Thapar: I want to pick up on that because I thought the only diagnosis in his speech was this belief that a billion people need to be given a voice, heard and empowered. But when he says that, wasn't he clearly suggesting that the Indian political system is problem and an obstacle?
Ramachandra Guha: Yes, but I interpret it differently. I take the issue of diversity; you know when he talks about, as you know Indian democrats have always talked about, Indian pluralism, the diversity of language, the religion, of caste and the community. So when you say a voice, it means don't impose the view of your religion, your caste, your class on somebody else. You know his ideas on the panchayat system are confused, his arguments on the political system is clogged and begs the question as to what his party has done in past nine years is unclog it. But certainly the underlined argument, that we are a plural society and hence tolerant and dialogue is important, must be easy.
Karan Thapar: Absolutely. There is no doubt that he put a lot of stress on tolerance, a lot of stress on hearing people. But he kept on and on about the need to give voice to a billion, who he said were not been heard, who were not been empowered. And when he was saying that, I got the impression he was positioning himself as an outsider criticising the establishment and yet I said to myself he is very much epicenter of this establishment. So, was that confusion or schizophrenia or was he just deliberately trying to be rebel?
Ramachandra Guha: Well, we don't know what's inside his mind. Part of it may be deliberate. You know the idea that Sonia Gandhi positioned herself partly out of the system, as the renouncer, so she has a moral authority. So, maybe he thought similarly he will position himself the same way. But partly it's the lack of experience, he has never worked within the system, he has only been a MP. So, he doesn't understand the problem of representation, authority, policy formulation, taking decisions. So, concrete examples of how to negotiate between the states and the Centre, for example, he ducked the question as to what should be the Centre-state relations.
Karan Thapar: In fact, he didn't answer his role.
Ramachandra Guha: At all, which was a very important question, which should have been answered.
Karan Thapar: So, this impression that he gave the people of sounding like an outsider, rallying against the establishment may well be inexperience rather than a deliberant attempt?
Ramachandra Guha: We don't know. It could be either.
Karan Thapar: The other impression he left with me is that when he complained about how the system hadn't given voice to a billion people. He is actually talking about the system that his mother has presided over for nine years, which his father, grandmother and grandfather created and is considered to be the best they could give the country. Did he intent to be critical of his family or did he not realise the consequences of what he was saying and how he was sounding?
Ramachandra Guha: I think the latter. I don't think he understood the consequences. One of the interesting parts of the speech Karan was that remark about how only the Left parties or the Dravidian parties have to some extent empower the panchayat.
Karan Thapar: Another hit by the way at his own party.
Ramachandra Guha: Exactly, but it was also an acknowledgement of the truth. So, in that sense he is well intentioned, he is well meaning, despite his parties political allusions, despite the fact that he comes from a family that has presided over India's destinies. He just acknowledges that in some important issue, such as decentralisation of the power, the Left and the Dravidian parties may have done better.
Karan Thapar: We are coming to an interesting image of Rahul Gandhi, his speech portrays him as a man we know who is at the very much core of the establishment. He sound at times like a rebel, but we are not sure whether he intends to or whether that is accidental. His speech presents him as a man who implies serious criticism of his family but we are not sure whether he means it or whether he even realises that's how he sounds. So it's not just confusion, sometimes one gets the impression he is not totally sure of what he is saying and whether he means that all he is implying.
Ramachandra Guha: I mean, I think he gets many people in his situation, he gets many confused signals. I think his mother and his father made up their mind about what they will listen to people and they made up their mind.
Karan Thapar: He is in the process of making up his mind.
Ramachandra Guha: He has been in the process of making up his mind for the nine years that he has been in politics.
Karan Thapar: Now when it came to solutions, after all that is what people want from politicians, Rahul Gandhi has none to offer, except for a plea for compassion which he says he was listening to everyone, including your worst enemy. But is it really as simple as that?
Ramachandra Guha: I wish he had spoken about concrete issues. For example, when it came to panchayats Karan, I wish he had spoken about giving teeth to the 73rd and 74th amendment. Why is it that financial devaluation has not taken place in many states? What are the powers, rights over minerals or water policy or forest policy that can be transferred? I wish he had talked about substantive issues like that. When he talked about infrastructure, I wish he had given a vision as to how you can develop infrastructure while having a proper, just land acquisition policy. So, concrete issues, at least one or two concrete issues, particularly in the forum of entrepreneurs who are interested in concrete policy direction, would have been helpful.
Karan Thapar: In fact one area where the absence of concrete issues or absence of solutions was most stark is when he repeatedly called on industry for a partnership with the government to create jobs, and yet he said nothing about the essential reforms that are needed to open up the system to encourage entrepreneurship, without which those jobs would never happen. What would you make of that omission that he didn't talk about the one thing that would deliver the partnership he wants?
Ramachandra Guha: Well, I don't think he has thought seriously about any policy issues. It shows in his record in Parliament that he hasn't made any speeches, it shows in his diffidence to take a line job like running a ministry. So, you know when it comes to hard-nosed policy decisions, adjudicating between different competing interests, and then reconciling them in some kind of forward-looking way, this is not something he has ever faced.
Karan Thapar: So, what we are saying is that he is a sincere man, but not a serious thinker?
Ramachandra Guha: And also someone unwilling to shoulder responsibility, administrative responsibility.
Karan Thapar: Now, one of the things he did do was to deride the belief that a man or a white horse imported, it could change things. But as you know in history, often the individual does end up changing the world. Whether it's Napoleon or Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, or even in our time, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Does Rahul Gandhi not want to recognise that, or is he unaware of it?
Ramachandra Guha: Well I think there is some truth to what he says. I think the argument that, you know we had trifles with authoritarian rule before. I mean you and I have lived through Indira Gandhi's emergency. So, I think we should be wary about one person claiming to clean up the system. Margaret Thatcher did not operate in a country as complex as India. So I think, but if he had spoken while belittling the idea that one great emancipator will save India, if he had spoken about concrete institutional reforms, if he had given some ideas about economic growth, about environmental sustainability, about fiscal revolution, it would have been helpful.
Karan Thapar: Now he did come up with an interesting metaphor to characterise India. He described it as a beehive, where as you know, a beehive has a queen bee at the Centre and when she dies, the beehive actually falls into disuse. So, is it an apt metaphor for India?
Ramachandra Guha: Well I...
Karan Thapar: And particularly for his family?
Ramachandra Guha: I think these folksy metaphors are probably supplied to him and he doesn't work out the consequences but you put it quite beautifully, because he didn't quite realise that, you know, when his mother gives up political power, the whole hive may collapse.
Karan Thapar: And that in a sense is what he has suggested without meaning to?
Ramachandra Guha: As with much of what he said.
Karan Thapar: So, when you look back and sum up on his speech, did this sound to you like the speech of a man who could be Prime Minister of India one day? Or did it sound more like a young student still coming to terms with his own thoughts and ideas?
Ramachandra Guha: Yes that was, as I said, the endearing part of it. Because if you hear Narendra Modi for example, who is the unspoken person in this speech, there is no element of self-doubt, there is complete certitude arrogance, authority bordering authoritarianism. So, a politician who is reflective, who admits to mistakes, is just endearing. That's one part of him that I think I liked and that's why I say that he is charming and sincere. But on the other hand, a politician who is unwilling to take responsibility, who should have really taken a cabinet job in 2009 at least, who if he wants to fight an election in a state, should go repeatedly to that state. For example in Uttar Pradesh, he should have said I am here to become chief minister of that state. And in Gujarat, simply to go for a day, rather than campaign hard, here is a person who ducks hard work.
Karan Thapar: So, what you are suggesting is that his self-doubt may be endearing, but it is not leadership quality? And in addition, he doesn't have perseverance.
Ramachandra Guha: Absolutely. In whatever he has done, in any issues taken up, he hasn't followed it through in any serious or systematic way.
Karan Thapar: Now undoubtedly the speech he gave at CII will be compared to Narendra Modi's speech at the Shri Ram College of Commerce or at the India Today Conclave. How do the two speeches compare?
Ramachandra Guha: Well, as I said, Narendra Modi's speech particularly at the India Today Conclave where he took questions was arrogant, bullying. You know when someone asked him about 2002, he said 'pachaas baar aise sawaal sun chuka hoon' (I have already heard this question for some 50 times), you know that kind of contemptuous arrogance is not comfortable in any kind of politician in a society as complex as India. So, I have reservations as a democrat about Narendra Modi. I have reservations as a citizen about Rahul Gandhi because here is a person, who unlike Narendra Modi or Nitish Kumar or Salman Khurshid or P Chidambaram, is unwilling to take a line job and execute his ideas in practicality.
Karan Thapar: So, would you say that the comparison between Modi on the one hand and Rahul Gandhi on the other is that Rahul comes across as endearing but weak and not a leader, Modi comes across as arrogant but clearly behind that arrogance there is leadership quality?
Ramachandra Guha: Well, I am not sure. I think because you can run a state in a dictatorial waym you can't run a country as complex as India in that kind of way. So in that sense, what Rahul Gandhi said about a voice and listening to somebody else, Narendra Modi is incapable of listening to someone else. One very important part of leadership by the way Karan is nurturing a team. In Narendra Modi's Gujarat, no other minister is talked about.
Karan Thapar: Has Rahul nurtured a team?
Ramachandra Guha: Well he hasn't been in a job of responsibility. He hasn't commanded a ministry. So we don't know. But say for example even when a Nehru was prime minister, a towering figure like Nehru, you knew about TT Krishnamachari, C Subramaniam, YB Chavan, Govind Wallabh Pant. You knew about top-class ministers. Narendra Modi has to learn to nurture a team. And that's also needed. Leadership is also needed.
Karan Thapar: A quick question and I know that it's a bit of a trick question. If you had to choose between the two of them as a future Prime Minister of India, given the weaknesses, given the analysis, if you had to choose between the two, which would you choose?
Ramachandra Guha: Well fortunately I don't have to choose between them. And I refuse to believe and I refuse to go along with the media reduction of the choice of Prime Minister to these two people.
Karan Thapar: In other words, India deserves better than either?
Ramachandra Guha: And indeed within the Congress party and within the BJP, there are better qualified candidates.
Karan Thapar: Lets no longer talk about the Rahul Gandhi's speech to the CII, but ask you instead to analyse in a sense his nine years as MP. What sort of MP has he been and what does that tell us about him? Let's talk about how you assess Rahul Gandhi's performance as a MP over the last nine years. In an article you wrote for The Telegraph in January, you said that out of every 10 days of Parliament sitting, Rahul Gandhi had only been present for four. During that time, he had only asked four or five questions and made four or five brief speeches. So what's your verdict on him as an MP?
Ramachandra Guha: Extremely disappointing and lazy.
Karan Thapar: And just that? No more?
Ramachandra Guha: As a Parliamentarian, the duties of an MP are much wider. So what he does in his constituency is one part of it. What he does in generating public debate is another part of it. But as a Parliamentarian, lazy and disappointing.
Karan Thapar: What about the way in which his campaign didn't bring results for Congress and let's in particular talk about the three states - Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat. What impression have you formed of his as a campaigner?
Ramachandra Guha: Not sustained, not rigorous, not hard-working. In UP in particular, he should have done what Akhilesh did. UP is 200 million people Karan. He should have said I will come here and rule the state. I will live in Lucknow for a month, a year and a half, I'll campaign and if I win, I will be chief minister. And I think his episodic visit from Delhi didn't solve the question. In Gujarat, he had to go because otherwise Narendra Modi would have said he is too scared to come. But he just goes for one day.
Karan Thapar: So, does he duck the big challenge when he only goes to Gujarat for one day?
Ramachandra Guha: Absolutely. And he also ducks the big challenge in UP where he doesn't squarely tell the electorate that I have come here to serve you as chief minister.
Karan Thapar: Is that because he is scared of failing?
Ramachandra Guha: It may be because there is a myth in the family that they parachute to the top and they only start as prime ministers. I don't know.
Karan Thapar: So, there is a sense in which he remains a victim of the family myth?
Ramachandra Guha: Absolutely.
Karan Thapar: He hasn't broken free of that?
Ramachandra Guha: Or he hasn't shown enough initiative in breaking free.
Karan Thapar: Now of the things that he has done for which at times the press and different people of the civil society gave him credit for were his so-called noble initiatives when he visited the Niyamgiri Hills in Orissa or Bhatta Parsaul in UP. He has lived and slept in Dalit homes or he has taken industrialists to Srinagar. Now were those initiatives something that led to results or were they just one-offs that ended up still-born?
Ramachandra Guha: They were really symbolic gestures rather than initiatives, because he never followed them up. Karan I will just take two examples. There is a massive debate about whether excessive mining has led to the growth of Naxalism by dispossessing tribals. After he went to Niyamgiri, he should have pushed hard for a mining law which particularly in schedule 5 areas under the Constitution permits tribals, if the law is enacted properly, to get a share of the proceeds. He didn't do that. The other thing is Kashmir. A very important way of reconciling Kashmir with the rest of India is to provide dignified employment to the many thousands of educated young men who do not have an outlet for their skills and their ambitions. So simply to take Ratan Tata once is not enough. It is to persist and harass Ratan Tata till he starts a unit of Tata Consultancy Services in Srinagar which will be a beacon for other industrialists to follow.
Karan Thapar: Once again you are saying that the hard-work that is the follow on is missing?
Ramachandra Guha: It is completely missing.
Karan Thapar: Now I noticed that earlier this year in January, when freedom of expression and freedom of speech became controversial subjects because of Ashish Nandy, because of Salman Rushdie, and because of 'Vishwaroopam', Rahul Gandhi's voice was absent and silent. Do you think that a young man in his forties should have actually used that occasion to stand up for freedoms or does he not identify with liberal rights?
Ramachandra Guha: You know Karan there are so many issues in India. I don't expect him to speak on any. But the issues that he does speak on, for example tribal rights, for example education and employment in Kashmir, let him at least follow them up. So I don't expect him to be an oracle or a prophet or a moral conscience for every issue in society and if he doesn't want to speak on the freedom of expression, or intellectuals, that's fine by the way. But the issues that he does take up, which are important, which are the dispossession of tribals, which is the alienation of the Kashmiris, these are things that he should follow up. Another example is the Northeast. Why is it that only his mother campaigns in the Northeast and he never goes there?
Karan Thapar: You know all of this you are attributing to lack of follow up, to laziness, to lack of perseverance, but another aspect of this is his persistent refusal to accept ministerial responsibility. Do you look upon that as laudable lack of ambition or inexplicable diffidence?
Ramachandra Guha: The latter. It may be linked to what I said earlier Karan, the myth that Jawaharlal Nehru started office as Prime Minister. Rajiv Gandhi started his political career as Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi had a brief stint as Information Minister but essentially started as Prime Minister. And that's the divine right of the family that they arrive at the top, that they indeed are riding that white horse as a charger to reclaim the durbar in Delhi.
Karan Thapar: So, he is trying very hard to show to the world that he is earning his laurels, not grabbing them by family inheritance?
Ramachandra Guha: Well we don't know. I just think I wish he had become Minister, for example I do know, I never met the young man but I know from common friends, that he was strongly urged because of his interest, profuse interest in the rural poor and the land question. He was strongly urged to become the Minister of Rural Development in 2009, which would have been the way in which he would have learnt the system, brought about administrative change, enacted his beloved policies and proved himself worthy of being Prime Minister. But he is has lost all those chances.
Karan Thapar: And in your eyes, this was a mistake?
Ramachandra Guha: Completely.
Karan Thapar: I want to end this interview by quoting to you what you wrote about Rahul Gandhi in The Telegraph in January. You said: "From what we know of him as a thinker and actor, as politician and social reformer, it seems quite clear that if the Congress were in a position to form the government after the next general elections, and if the party then nominates Mr Gandhi as Prime Minister, the nation shall not be in safe hands." Do you really mean that?
Ramachandra Guha: I absolutely mean that. And I will just add a footnote to that that if Narendra Modi was to become Prime Minister, the nation will not be in safe hands either.
Karan Thapar: But just sticking to Rahul Gandhi, when you say that the nation would not be in safe hands if he became Prime Minister, you are not just saying that he is unsuited for the job, you are actually saying to make him Prime Minister would be dangerous?
Ramachandra Guha: Yes, because he hasn't shown the determination, the will, the intelligence, the courage, the hard work , the political canniness that being Prime Minister of this country requires. He should have at least started as a minister. You know Nitish Kumar has won a state. You know Narendra Modi has won a state. You know P Chidambaram has won several ministries. But Rahul Gandhi, all you have is some well-meaning words and fortitude in the occasional overnight visit to a Dalit village. That's all.
Karan Thapar: And that's clearly not enough.
Ramachandra Guha: Absolutely not.
Karan Thapar: Ramachandra Guha, pleasure speaking to you.
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Plea Bargaining - A deal with devils?
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