Rahul Gandhi has adorned a new hat, that of an interviewer

by Amitabh Tiwari

He interviewed two eminent economists -- Abhijit Banerjee and Raghuram Rajan -- recently to discuss what should be India’s economic response to COVID-19 and how India can come out of the crisis.

The discussion got decent traction in the media considering the two gentlemen have great credentials, the former a Nobel laureate and the latter an ex-Governor of the Reserve Bank of India.

However, social media was abuzz with discussions on Rahul Gandhi’s role, with senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai chuckling that Rahul could soon render television anchors jobless.

Even established Chamchas of Rahul Gandhi like Rajdeep Sardesai mocked at this interview

Rajan stated that a Rs 65,000-crore package is required for the poor (Rs 15,650 crore already transferred to 15.65 crore women Jan Dhan account holders, last instalment of Rs 7,825 crore to be made in June pending).

Banerjee advocated cash transfers for 60% of the poor households in the country. About 15.65 crore account holders account for roughly 60% of the number of households (27 crore) in India.

What do the Congress party strategists aim to achieve from this exercise? 

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party dismiss Rahul’s capabilities (in fact, Modi never calls him by name, but uses Shahzade or Naamdaar to refer to him), through these discussions, the Congress party may have wanted to establish Rahul’s credibility with the global and national audiences.

The attempt is also to establish Rahul as an ‘intellectual’ after he has been, rather derogatively, called names on social media. Renowned global economists agreeing to speak to Rahul is no small achievement.

It is part of the continuous process of the party's public relations managers to show Rahul as humane: as someone who listens to people, consults them on important matters and takes their advice, unlike PM Modi who is perceived as a one-man army.

These discussions, in a controlled environment, have less element of surprises and goof-ups, hence making Rahul look good in front of the audience.

It also helps to strengthen the point that Rahul speaks to the media and many experts, while Modi doesn’t speak to the Press at all.

However, I think this exercise will not do any good to Rahul: electorally or politically.

Here are 7 reasons why I think so:

Firstly, both the interviews were conducted in English. Only about 20% Indians -- 129 million people, as per 2011 Census -- can speak and understand English. Furthermore, it is considered as the language of the rich, the upper middle class, the language of urban India.

So, a large majority of the population may not have followed the discussion. There is just one English newspaper in the top 20 Indian newspapers, readership-wise. The readership of Dainik Jagran (a Hindi newspaper) is four times that of Times of India, the largest English daily.

Secondly, most of the population does not understand complex economics concepts. For most, the discussions ‘went over the head’, so to speak.

It’s very difficult even for highly educated people from non-economics background to understand such jargon. A point to note: the Economic Times readership base is less than one-fourth that of Times of India.

Thirdly, intellectuals don’t win elections and don’t necessarily emerge as mass leaders. Former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh lost the only Lok Sabha election he contested. The Congress party should focus on strategies that make Rahul a mass leader, accepted by all caste groups and all classes of people.

Fourthly, people of India want to hear Rahul’s vision, his blueprint for coming out of this crisis, and not economists’ viewpoints. They want to hear whether Rahul agrees with the economists' take or not.

While it is very normal for leaders to consult various domain experts, these consultations are usually held behind closed doors and not in front of an audience.

Fifthly, it is now an established fact that these two economists are not really politically neutral. Abhijit Banerjee helped the Congress create the NYAY plan which found a place in its manifesto in the 2019 General Elections. Raghuram Rajan on several occasions has openly criticized the BJP government’s economic policies. He also has been an informal advisor to Rahul Gandhi for some time now.

Sixthly, the conversations appeared to be scripted. A controversy had erupted over the fact that the clock behind Rajan, when he was being interviewed by Rahul Gandhi, showed that the conversation lasted over an hour: however, only 28 minutes of the talk was telecast. The allegation being that the interview was possibly edited and there were also some retakes.

Seventhly, if the attempt was to woo the English-speaking middle class whose numbers are rising, then too this exercise was unsuccessful. 

Abhijit Banerjee has always advocated for higher taxes on the rich to pay for welfare projects for the poor. He is considered an economist with Left-leaning policies and philosophy. This was also the primary reason why NYAY, his pet project, boomeranged. 

Rahul Gandhi should speak to the people, the voters, and tell them what his vision is, talk to his party workers, motivate them, give them points to attack the government, and not interview experts. 

People in India like strong leadership and expect leaders to have answers to all their problems. This PR exercise is a complete disaster unless he is eyeing a change in career and wants to enter the world of media.