Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's initiative to don a quasi-journalistic hat and get subject experts to offer prescriptions for dealing with various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath for India is, undoubtedly, a welcome departure from the usual politics of blaming the other in times of crisis. However, the success of the ‘Rahul Gandhi in conversation with…’ series in positioning Rahul and his party as better alternatives to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP will, perhaps, also depend on the Wayanad MP’s prowess in steering the dialogue on to diverse subjects instead of repeatedly seeking an endorsement for his own ideas for tackling the current chaos.
On Tuesday, as Rahul interacted with Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, his second guest on the "in conversation" series since its April 30 debut, it was apparent that he was scouting for plaudits for UPA-era welfare schemes and acclaim for the still-born poll promises (NYAY, again) made by his party during last year’s Lok Sabha elections. As an extension of the same scheme, Rahul appeared eager to get a thumbs-up for his own ideas on how the current crisis must be dealt with. That Banerjee occasionally disagreed with Rahul's remedies added some credibility to the conversation unlike the earlier one between the Congress leader and former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan which appeared to be largely pre-scripted, though not devoid of merits.
Banerjee's diagnosis of some facets of the problem -- UPA-era policies being "inadequate" in the current scenario, absence of a universal public distribution system to include those left out in the Aadhar-ration card-DBT matrix, crashing demand, stranded migrants -- was precise. His solutions -- temporary ration cards for all, stimulus to help MSMEs and ramp up demand, financial assistance for the bottom 60 per cent of the population, roping in communities to decide how to disburse financial aid and factoring in possible pilferage and corruption -- may be debatable and their efficacy questionable but they do provide an alternative blueprint for containing the pandemic's devastating impact on India's economy.
The approach suggested by Rajan, on April 30, and Banerjee on Tuesday, differed slightly. However, Rahul's questions largely remained the same and his focus was on the overarching economic scenario. This is where Rahul needs to work harder if he is aiming for a continuing captive audience and to expose the Modi government's mishandling of the crisis on various fronts. Rahul, as his past record --particularly in poll campaigns -- amply demonstrates, has a tendency to get trapped within his own narrative. If all his election speeches through the 2017-2019 period (including those for assembly polls fought after the Congress’ Lok Sabha debacle) sounded the same, his questionnaire for the "in conversation" series has, so far, fallen in same pattern. There's the usual emphasis for the government to roll out a NYAY-like scheme for direct cash transfers, demand for a stimulus package for the MSME sector, brickbats for the overtly centralized functioning of Modi’s government, etc.
This is not to say that the points being raised by Rahul lack merit or do not need to be emphasized repeatedly. At the same time though, Rahul needs to realize that the nuances of economic policy are usually lost on large parts of our population. Rahul and his guests or other Congress leaders may talk endlessly about the size of a stimulus package, issues facing the MSME sector or Keynesian chain reaction but it will serve no purpose if this makes little sense to the ordinary citizen. Rajan may suggest a Rs 65,000 crore package for the financially poor but all it would take for the BJP to deflate this supposedly feel good suggestion is to press into service its formidable social media team to harp endlessly about the Rs. 1.75 lakh crore package already announced by the Centre and claim that the government has done more than what the Congress suggested.
What Rahul, perhaps, needs is to urgently diversify his guest list and topics of conversation to include people the ordinary Indians can relate to. A Rajan or a Banerjee, personal standing and repute in the field of economics notwithstanding, may be too esoteric for a common citizen to relate to. Rahul would do well to expand his guest list to also include experts working within India in the fields of social welfare, public health, civil rights and communal harmony -- all areas that have a direct link with the ongoing pandemic and, arguably, hit home harder than complex economic policy matters.
For starters, he could just call his mother, interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi, for advice. Sonia had brought together a formidable team of domain experts from diverse fields to form the National Advisory Council (NAC) during the UPA days. Though the NAC was often criticised and still is by the BJP, sections of the media and even some Congressmen for functioning like a parallel government, there is no denying that the finest reform legislations -- NREGA, RTI, Right to Food, to name a few --of Dr. Manmohan Singh's regime took shape during NAC discussions. The UPA's return to power in 2009 was, in a substantial measure, credited to the success of the NAC's policy formulations.
During his conversation with Rahul, Banerjee pointed out that though these reforms were "inadequate" to deal with the current crisis, the Modi government had "absolutely embraced"ÂÂÂÂ the UPA instruments and was using them now to deal with the current crisis. Surely, Rahul could invite some of Sonia's comrades on the NAC to discuss ways in which their own recommendations during the UPA days could now be revisited and improved upon. True, several NAC members had reservations on how the UPA government had tweaked some of their draft legislations to accommodate political considerations and these members could even sound bitter about these alterations when talking to Rahul. However, by leaving room for criticism of his own party's government while letting the experts simultaneously expose the chinks in the present regime's handling of the situation, Rahul could bolster his credibility to some degree.
(Views expressed are personal)