Rahul Gandhi’s Buzz: Indian Scion Offers Many Metaphors but Few Solutions

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PRAKASH SINGH / AFP / Getty Images

Rahul Gandhi, vice president of India's ruling Congress Party, addresses the special plenary session of Confederation of Indian Industry in New Delhi on April 4, 2013

After Rahul Gandhi concluded his widely watched speech to India Inc. yesterday, an unlikely word was left hanging in the air: beehive. It was the political scion’s first major address to business leaders in what promises to be a long and grueling re-election campaign for India’s ruling Congress Party. As the newly appointed party veep and potentially the next Prime Minister of India, Gandhi talked about a lot of things during his hour-plus speech on Thursday, but the thing that stuck was an odd moment during the question-and-answer period when he sought to replace the popular symbol of India as a lumbering pachyderm with something new. “We’re not an elephant. We’re a beehive,” he said emphatically, before posing the question to the audience: “Which is more powerful, an elephant or a beehive?”

Cue the awkward pause. Seen by many as a coming-out of sorts for the 42-year-old political heir, yesterday’s speech to the Confederation of Indian Industry was a rare moment for Gandhi to step away from his usual audience of rural constituents and party faithful and try to convince a new crowd that, come national elections scheduled for 2014, Congress deserves another four years in office. It’s not an easy sell, particularly to the business folk who are disillusioned with the current government. Quarterly growth hit a decade low on Congress’s latest watch. Investment and manufacturing fell, while inflation has gone up and the deficit has widened.

Did he succeed at making the case? Those who managed to follow the intertwined metaphorical narratives he wove through the speech may have been impressed by a young(ish) politician who, whatever his own political ambitions, clearly believes in his party’s long-standing commitment to improve the lot of India’s hundreds of millions of poor. He was, at moments, an engaging and passionate speaker, particularly when talking about how the nation’s political infrastructure is failing the local-level politicians charged with implementing some of the country’s most crucial laws.

That’s all interesting. But let’s get back to the fact that this was a speech to a group of affluent heavyweights who have been growing increasingly anxious over the government’s seeming inability to get India’s economy back on a high-growth trajectory. Industry’s mood has improved after a flurry of reforms was pushed through this fall, but many other measures are still stuck in the gears of a Parliament hamstrung by a weak ruling coalition and fierce opposition.

Gandhi offered many platitudes cloaked in meandering metaphors about why India needs to get back to growth. Riffing off John F. Kennedy’s line that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” Gandhi said: “A rising tide doesn’t raise people who don’t have a boat. We have to help build the boat for them. It’s not good enough to raise the tide. We have to give them the basic infrastructure to rise with the tide.” It didn’t end there. A few minutes later, when talking about women in his constituency, he went on to say: “They told me they have no boats … They are not only building our boats, they are the waves.”

Anybody who has read an Indian daily knows that the extended metaphor is something of a fine art in South Asia. That Gandhi (or his speechwriter) may not be well versed in that craft is not a big deal — if his speech had also reflected the fact that he has a solid grasp on the very nonmetaphorical steps that need to be taken to solve the very serious problems India faces. Gandhi had more than one opportunity to demonstrate that grasp, being posed a few very good questions on what to do about India’s severe water crisis and how to keep center-state tensions from holding key economic reforms at bay. In both cases, he defaulted to his pet subject of political-system reform at the grassroots level. Important, to be sure. But most people probably would have preferred to hear if he had any ideas about how to fix the aforementioned problems.

None of this, of course, makes Gandhi different from many politicians in many other countries. But India is not like other countries. The subject of whether Gandhi has any desire to be his party’s choice for Prime Minister, should Congress be re-elected, fuels endless speculation these days in Delhi — buzz that Gandhi himself swats aside as irrelevant in the face of the greater issues. The best moments of his speech on Thursday gave a glimpse of a man who takes those issues — and that potential future responsibility — seriously. “Embracing the excluded is essential to the wealth of the nation,” he told the crowd. “We have to carry the poor and the weak with us.” Few would disagree. What Gandhi has yet to show is whether he is the man who has the practical acumen to get all of the beehive onto the boat. Or something like that.