Rahul uses interview route for makeover

The larger game plan behind Rahul Gandhi-Raghuram Rajan interview was to prop him up as a leader who ‘reaches out’ and ‘seeks advice’.


Rahul Gandhi has gone in for yet another makeover with his plans to hold — and publicise – on-the-record interactions with thought leaders and economic experts to figure out a way out of Covid-19. The first of these conversations was with former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan and we are told more such interactions will follow. A recorded version of a wellcurated 27-minute chat was released to the media — though it didn’t take long for the Twitter troll army to point out that the chat took over 90 minutes to record and only an edited version was released. Apparently, the clock on the wall behind Rajan gave the game away. Nonetheless the conversation touched some key talking points — from the economic implications of Covid-19, to India’s handling of the crisis and its global role post-lockdown.

Since the interviewer was a Congress leader planning a comeback, he used this platform to lobby a few salvos at Prime Minister Narendra Modi by talking generally about authoritarian leaders versus liberal models, the importance of social harmony to sustain the economic narrative and the crisis of centralisation. These are all charges that Rahul has levied against the PM at one point or the other. But was it a smart strategy? For it was the social media trolls that had successfully painted Rahul as a sort of ‘Pappu’ during the 2014 elections. And it is clear that Rahul now wants to use the same medium to course correct that image. As Kaveree Bamzai, author and columnist, asks, “Will it be enough to counter the deeply entrenched bias against him? I am not sure. Negative news, as we know, has greater impact than positive news and social media echo chambers have decided on his ‘Pappu’ image long time ago. He will have to do this consistently and this is a virtue he has not displayed before.” That aside there are some important takeaways from this conversation for Raghuram Rajan is a soughtafter voice in any economic crisis. His calculation that it would take “approx. Rs 65,000 crore (to save the poorest of the poor and their livelihood). Our GDP is Rs 200 lakh crore, and out of that Rs 65,000 crore is not a huge amount”, made instant headlines. But more important than the economics, it is the subtext of the conversation that Team Rahul wants to highlight — the underlying message being here is a leader who is ready to ask and seek advice from the experts.

Again, this is a charge that the Congress has often raised against the PM for running a one-man show backed by little bench strength. Points our Dilip Cherian, Image Guru: “There’s no doubt that taking the approach of intellect rather than just intellectualism was the image that emerged from Rahul Gandhi’s exchange with Raghuram Rajan. It’s an idea game, how India can survive the vicious combo of Covid plus lockdown, so Rahul wisely focused on the latter, making sure he wasn’t prescribing Covid strategies that are better left to doctors and epidemiologists. Though Rajan did wander into the realms of testing, Rahul focused sharply on the poor and their future. He certainly knew where he wanted insights on.” In fact, this is not the first such conversation that Rahul has had with thought leaders and industry experts. He has regularly been holding video-conferences but this is the first time it has been made public. And we are told more will follow. Points out Seema Goswami, author and columnist, “Rahul’s interaction with Raghuram Rajan will probably be dismissed by the BJP media machine as an image-building exercise. It may even be mocked as another way of rehabilitating Rahul so that he can comeback as Congress president. But none of this can take away from the substantial learnings that we can glean from the conversation — as long as we are willing to be open minded.”

In fact, there are those within the Congress who feel that this could be the right time for Rahul to once again re-emerge and takeover the party leadership. He had been the first to point out the perils of Covid-19, way back in February and much before the WHO and consequently our government took serious measures against the pandemic. However, the Congress has realised the futility of attacking PM Modi directly. “So instead of that, the idea is to prop up Rahul as an alternate leader, one who reaches out and seeks advice, all in a fairly transparent manner,” says a Congress leader familiar with Team Rahul’s strategy. There is also a feeling that with the economy going downhill even before Covid-19 hit us, there may be some nostalgia for the UPA faces that steered the economic ship prior to the current lot. So, expect a lot more press conferences by Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram and Montek Singh Ahluwalia soon. The RBI Governor was also a key member of this team.

The Congress emphasis is also going to be on the economic fallout post-lockdown, for that is where the party feels the government will miss the ball. In fact, all those who ask about a Rahul model of governance vis-à-vis the PM’s Gujarat model are going to be shown the role of Congress CMs during Covid and how they handled concerns of both jaan and jahaan (life and livelihood) as opposed to the BJP-ruled states. Will this work is anybody’s guess. For Rahul has certainly been making the right noises during the Covid crisis. The problem is that his image lacks consistency. That’s something he will need to show before this is dismissed as yet another makeover in the series of many. From being the great dynastic hope of the Congress, to the activist-politician fighting for the Nyamgiri tribals to the angry young man tearing up Ordinances, to the anti-corruption crusader. To the now — to what Kaveree Bamzai calls, “the Prannoy Roy of Indian politics”. Certainly, concerned conversations are a great beginning. But this has to be followed by consistent action. And, no more retakes. And finally, as Bamzai rightly points out, he will have to do more than just this.