A Gandhi's Bumbling, Befuddling `Beehive Speech'

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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The young Indian politician Rahul Gandhi, whose bloodline includes three former prime ministers, is widely expected to be his party's nominee for that post when elections are held in the first half of 2014. But even Gandhi's supporters within his Congress Party were frequently bemused by a speech he made to more than 1,000 prominent members of the Indian business community last week.

At a meeting organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry, the 42-year-old Gandhi stood out among the elegant suits and saris of businessmen and women. He chose to wear the male Indian politician's traditional garb of a simple white kurta-pajama. His words, however, were less distinctive. It was always going to be difficult to recover from a beginning as hokey as:

"There is a tendency to look at India as a country. In our everyday life we see India as a national structure. But if you go back slightly more than that, go back a hundred, two hundred years, you would find that India is energy, it is a force."

Holding the stage for more than an hour, he presented a vision of the state of the nation and its future that was a grab bag of disjointed metaphors and rambling platitudes. ("Embracing the excluded is essential to the wealth of the nation. If we do not embrace them, we will all suffer.") He offered, according to a member of the audience, "no road map, no plan, no solution."

Gandhi insisted that India needed to improve its infrastructure and education (his party has been at the center of the coalition government since 2004). He argued that government needed to listen to the voices of the excluded (his party has excluded all members who aren't Gandhis from consideration for top positions).

He echoed the contemporary consensus that the work of government wasn't to create jobs but "to improve the playing field and create an impartial, professional and rules-based governance system" (the current government has been racked by corruption scandals). Showing his background as a former employee of the consulting firm Monitor, he used the word "structures" dozens of times, mostly to refer to the absence of them in India.

But the speech became truly worrying when he moved from the scripted to the spontaneous and fielded questions from the fairly deferential audience. Pacing the stage, he composed long, tangential answers, more than once trying to achieve a demotic tone by using the word "boss" to refer to audience members (an American equivalent would be "dude").

He offered a vision of how India leveraged soft power in preference to hard: "There are people doing yoga in New York, dancing around." India, he said, was less a slow-moving elephant than a "beehive."

"Between the elephant and the beehive, which is more powerful?

"The answer is that they can't be compared."

Most bizarre was the moment when Gandhi took up the traditional comparison of slow-moving but democratic India and authoritarian but fast-rising China, a point at which he suddenly improvised a peculiar pantomime, enlisting the help of a visibly embarrassed vice-president of the Confederation of Indian Industry, Ajay Shriram. Gandhi made Shriram stand in for an anonymous functionary of government in China whom he, Gandhi, had met on his travels. Tom Wright described the scene in "Rahul Gandhi Speech Hits Some Dud Notes":

"Mr. Gandhi dragged a participant on to stage to play the part of the secretary. He squeezed the man's hand -- as he said he had done to the Chinese official -- telling him this is how China applies pressure to get things done.

"Then he hugged the man in an embrace -- again a re-enactment -- to show India's softer approach.

"`Boss, our environment is not simple, we cannot give you simple answers,' he said he told the Chinese secretary. `There is no complexity in China.'

"This was clearly pre-planned theater aimed to show Mr. Gandhi's lighter side. But it was also unintentionally comic."

Afterward, many of the leading lights of Indian business had to strain to give Gandhi a passing mark. The industrialist Adi Godrej, the president of the industry confederation, opined that Gandhi's speech "was partly philosophical." Sunil Mittal, head of the telecommunications giant Bharti Airtel Ltd., thought it "an outstanding speech, a level 5 speech."

Meanwhile, thousands of skeptical Indians took to Twitter and the hashtag "#PappuCII" to post less flattering reactions to the speech. (The term "pappu" is widely used in the north Indian vernacular to describe a naïf.) And Gandhi was taken to task in the press for some of his more simplistic ideas, such as the one that India was complex and China simple. Ananth Krishnan wrote in "Rahul Gandhi's dragon cliche":

"Mr. Gandhi, during his more than an hour-long interaction, came across as worryingly ill-informed about a country that is not only India's biggest neighbour and single largest trading partner, but also set to emerge as possibly India's most important, and difficult, diplomatic challenge in the next decade.

"`There is no complexity in China,' he declared, going on to present an anecdote which, he suggested, reflected life in the People's Republic. `A friend of mine who came from China, an Italian guy, was in shock,' he recounted. `He said, "I was in a bus in China. A bus hit a man. The driver picked up the man, put him on the side of the road and we carried on".' `There is no complexity there,' Mr. Gandhi concluded.

"Mr. Gandhi used this rather strange anecdote to make the claim that as India and China were fundamentally different countries, their development experiences and growth stories could not be compared. Hit-and-run incidents are no more commonplace in China than they are in India, and arriving at a simple conclusion about a billion people based on the testimony of one foreign visitor would be a misguided venture in either country."

And a writer on The Economist's Asia blog, The Banyan, derided Gandhi for failing to use the occasion to prove to Indian businesses that he was thinking seriously about translating their concerns into specific policy measures:

"A sensible plan for the day would have been to reassure Indian business that promoting rapid economic growth is again a priority. Mr Gandhi could have spelled out two or three specific measures, ideally in some detail, that he would support—for example, getting an Indian-wide goods-and-services tax accepted; promoting investment in retail or other industries; or devising a means by which infrastructure could be built much quicker. If he were really brave, he might have set out thoughts on ending bureaucratic uncertainty over corruption, or on land reform.

"Instead Mr Gandhi offered a range of thoughts, some earnest, many well-meaning, some apparently irrelevant and some waffle. He discussed India's soft power abroad (evidence: yoga is popular in New York; Indian film stars are recognised in Spanish nightclubs), waxed at length on the virtues of Indian `complexity' versus foreigners' `simplicity' and indirectly admitted that India is a terrible place in which to do business. At one point, to bemusement in the audience, he argued that if you can succeed in business in India then you will flourish anywhere, `even on the moon'. India, after two terms of Congress rule, evidently does not have the conditions right for its economy to flourish."

It was Gandhi's second puzzling performance this year, after his now infamous "power is poison" speech when he was anointed vice-president of the Congress Party at a conclave in January. And it seemed to confirm that of the five politicians who constitute the dynastic thread running through post-Independence India's oldest political party -- the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi, Indira's son Rajiv Gandhi, Rajiv's wife Sonia Gandhi (the current party president), and Rajiv and Sonia's son Rahul -- the young Gandhi scion is by some stretch the most uncomfortable in the rough and tumble world of politics.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh isn't a natural politician either, but he is at least a trained economist. In discussing complex issues, Singh doesn't teeter, as Gandhi often does, between abstractions and anecdotes without working these impressions into a constructive intellectual shape. A recent biography by the journalist Aarthi Ramachandran shows how Gandhi is unable to shake off the language and jargon of the corporate world in approaching politics, trying to force ideas like "the Toyota way" upon the issues of a complex democracy.

As the countdown begins to the crucial elections of 2014, India's biggest political party has to come up with a prime-ministerial candidate with a coherent action plan for the country's economic needs, foreign-policy challenges and fast-approaching demographic crisis. The beehive requires a more competent beekeeper than Rahul Gandhi.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net