Rahul Gandhi Means Business

02/12/2015 8:57 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
India’s ruling Congress party Vice President Rahul Gandhi displays the victory symbol as he addresses an election campaign in Amethi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Saturday, May 3, 2014. Gandhi, heir to the country's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, is leading the struggling party's campaign in the general election. The multiphase voting across the country runs until May 12, with results for the 543-seat lower house of parliament expected on May 16. (AP Photo/ Rajesh Kumar Singh)

Rahul Gandhi has been peripatetic; expressing concern over Punjab sectarianism, doing a walkathon for farmer welfare in Saharanpur, campaigning relentlessly in Bihar elections, and just recently engaging in a lively interactive session with young students at Mount Carmel College, Bangalore. What is, however, relatively unknown or not as heavily publicized is his several meetings with top-notch Foreign Institutional Investors, start-up entreprenurs, e-commerce whiz kids, and industry-business honchos.

Ever since Gandhi's popular jibe of " Suit Boot Ki Sarkaar" has become the zeitgeist of the Congress party's attack on Modi Sarkar's confused priorities, the Bhartiya Janata Party has been burning the midnight oil to shoehorn Rahul Gandhi as an " anti-growth" proponent. That is patently preposterous, and altogether disingenuous. On the contrary, Gandhi has always been a vocal advocate of " inclusive growth", one that welcomes high private and foreign capital investment and regulatory reforms, but concomitantly sees increased social welfare allocations and necessary subsidies to bridge the alarmingly rising income inequalities between India and Bharat.

What also worries Rahul is that India seems to be a mirror reflection of the American Gilded Age of the late 19th century, wherein robber barons influenced factor pricing to monopolize scarce natural resources to emerge as titanic business behemoths thanks to dubious government largesse. Practised propagandists of the BJP have been cleverly distorting the real truth; it is the Congress party that has actually taken the bull by the horns in addressing bold economic transformation. A rewind therefore is imperative.

"India's subsequent economic growth success is a product of that economic animal free-spirit unleashed in 1991"

Many of the first-time voters for elections 2014 were not just Gen Y, but those we could christen as " Post-1991 children" , the designated year that changed India forever. I remember the trepidation with which we reacted to then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh's intrepid step on partial convertibility of the capital account. The Gulf war had created a gigantic crisis even as NRI remittances into India in NRE/FCNR deposits grew manifold as panicky Indians from the Gulf moved their savings and personal assets into India. Economic liberalization was stoutly protested against by deeply entrenched desi industrialists famously branded as the Bombay Club who wanted enhanced protection for domestic industry; there was xenophobia prevalent about anything remotely foreign. Local companies clamored for a "level-playing field."

It is true that we had foreign exchange reserves to only finance two weeks import bills, and a severe crisis loomed. In a sense, there is a pre-1991 India and a new order post that period. With the license raj dismantled, curbs and quotas being abolished and a market-related economy created, India found that entrepreneurial adrenaline that it was looking for. Everything changed and how!

India's subsequent economic growth success is a product of that economic animal free-spirit unleashed in 1991 and subsequently further liberated , and a global technology revolution that has altered the world. Considering we had only landline connections being rationed by government departments earlier, (out telephone penetration was 1% in mid 1990's), today we have 1000 million mobile connections and growing, and India is inevitably the biggest market for Mr Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow contemporaries like Reid Hoffman. And with over 170 million TV households, India is one of the world's most hyper-connected countries. It is changed attitudes, aspirations and argumentation in India. We are one big chattering muttering country, even if prime-time TV has reduced us to a cacophonous mess.

Most political commentators have lamented that the Congress party has left the middle-class disenchanted. Ironically, it is the Congress party whose policies of encouraging greater free trade, open door policy to foreign investors and unshackling the overpowering license system that has created the Great Indian middle-class.

"A lot that that has changed in India under Congress-led government's has directly and materially affected the middle-class in a positive way"

The Congress supported the FDI in multi-brand retail; in fact it is the BJP that opposed it. The middle-class usually gets angry, when they feel insecure and uneasy with their immediate daily compulsions. It is a natural demand of a fast-progressing group that dreams big: India needs to nurture its middle-class for they are in the short to medium term, , it' s growth engine, its ideas laboratory, its warehouse of talent. Whether one looks at the profuse virtues of the middle-class from the consumption side or the investment angle, India's future growth will be greatly impacted by their emotional state. As a party, it was Congress's ham-handed handling of the politically motivated Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal agitation in 2011 that led to middle-class disenchantment. It takes time to recapture an abrupt trust-deficit, but the process of rebuilding bridges is already on.

Actually a lot that that has changed in India under Congress-led government's has directly and materially affected the middle-class in a positive way. We have seen the extraordinary transformation of online booking of railway tickets that has put an end to the throne of touts who would make a massive killing during summer holidays on long -distance train travel. Passport services, vehicle registration, driving licenses, property transactions etc have seen better service standards by going through an online platform. Technology is creating a level-playing field and improving efficiency and transparency besides reducing graft. Train services have increased, as have their standards, despite sporadic avoidable lapses like a creepy cockroach in the coffee mug.

Several cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad , Mumbai, Pune etc. have seen the impact of improved infrastructure in the form of mono rail, metro train services, flyovers; the Eastern Expressway in Mumbai seems like a never-ending serpentine hallway to heaven for a city that earlier traversed between Churchgate to Chembur in more than an hour. Now it takes 20 minutes.

It was actually parliamentary gridlock that prevented several legislative proposals transformational in nature from being effected; the Prevention of Communal Violence bill, Women's Reservation bill, and the now much-talked about Good and Services Tax bill.

In a way, it made democracy appear shambolic in India, a frequently filibustering opposition that distanced itself from debate, instead encouraging bedlam behavior. Parliament instead of being collegial was combative, confrontationist even on issues that demanded consensus; like the Food Security bill. Confrontationist politics of the BJP replaced the expected compromise negotiations of a responsible opposition. India had to pay a huge price; policy paralysis was a relative cipher compared to the parliamentary paralysis that one witnessed during UPA 2. India lost 35% of parliament time to mindless disruptions, while key legislative bills languished in moribund dark corners, or in cold storage gathering frost bites.

As Gandhi mentioned at the Mount Carmel College, growth was an unarguable necessity or a pre-condition to taking India forward, but it needed to be coupled with a robust redistributive mechanism. Or else, India will continue to live a delusional dream on hollow shibboleths like Make in India, Digital India, StartUp India etc that Prime Minister Modi repeats ad nauseam. Unfortuantely, marketing razzmatazz does not create jobs. Or fills an aching stomach suffering hunger pangs.

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