Byline by M J Akbar : The Mao of Gujarat
The unnamed young students of Ahmedabad who had a question or two for Rahul Gandhi this week were pertinent, not pert. They also provided more evidence that students are doing the job that journalists either cannot, or will not, do; which is, ask relevant questions. In this case, media was prevented from reporting the event, so journalists can't be faulted, and we know what happened thanks only to an enterprising reporter from the Times of India who had a source inside the hall.
The essence was simple and the same: students wanted to know why they should vote for the Congress when Narendra Modi had developed Gujarat so much. One answer given by Rahul Gandhi was odd, to say the very least. Mao Zedong, said Rahul Gandhi, also developed China but "he caused destruction to the country, too". I am not too sure whether Narendra Modi would mind being compared to one of the great figures of the twentieth century, warts and all. Rahul Gandhi probably gets his views on history from some briefing by a young and fresh associate, but he could have checked with the Chinese. They have moved on from Mao, just as India and the Congress have moved on from Mahatma Gandhi, but China still reveres the leader of the Long March as the leader who laid the foundations of China's economic miracle. Mao's portrait dominates Tienmien Square as well as the nation's banknotes. If Modi can become the second Gujarati to have his picture on the Indian rupee, he will consider his life well spent. Chairman Modi has quite a nice ring to it as well, although Modi would be going too far if he published a little red book packed with his quotable quotes and asked millions of young people to wave it in unison during a cultural revolution.
A young girl was sharper in her question. She asked which Congress leaders could measure up to Modi on the development matrix. Rahul Gandhi had four names on the tip of his tongue: Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram, Jairam Ramesh and A.K. Antony. It is interesting that three of the four did not contest the Lok Sabha elections, and the voters in Chidambaram's own constituency had such a poor view of his development capabilities that he was declared defeated before he was declared elected in the 2009 general elections. It would be interesting if Jairam Ramesh could find a constituency from where he could get elected on a development platform, but his ministry does take its priority cues from Rahul Gandhi's travel plans. What is definitely interesting is that the finance minister of India, Pranab Mukherjee, does not figure in Rahul Gandhi's list of heroes, either in development or honesty. The two lists are, in fact, similar, because Rahul thought that the three most incorruptible ministers were also the PM, Antony and Chidambaram. He did not however consider Jairam Ramesh worthy of a position in the honest brigade. Poor Jairam. Or, one wonders, is it more appropriate to say, rich Jairam?
One doubts if the people will give too much credence to such certificates from the Prime Minister-in-waiting, but the large tribe of Rahul-watchers in Delhi must have already done an instant calculus, shifted positions on the pecking order and altered levels of homage. The big winners are obviously Chidambaram and Jairam Ramesh; the first jumps to the top of seniors, and the second takes pole position on the second tier. The certificate slates them as stars of Rahul's first Cabinet, whenever or if ever that comes about, so now you know who to call if you want anything done.
The Ahmedabad students did not get into a critique of the heir's remarks, but they did press on about Modi. Why was Rahul denying Modi credit for Gujarat's development? He had caused "some issues" replied Rahul Gandhi. Did he mean riots? At this point the story takes a curious turn. This was where Rahul Gandhi could have departed from fudge and become forthright. Instead, says the report, "the Congress leader refused to engage further and walked out saying he was getting late". Perhaps he was only getting restive. Rahul Gandhi had found out what Barack Obama discovered when he met Mumbai students at St Xavier's College. It is easier to field questions from journalists than students. But that does not explain why he was evasive at the end. The students were more specific and forthright than him. It must be a recurrence of the old Congress disease, trying to play both sides against the middle.
Those who take the young for granted do not understand the young. They like cosmetics, but they never confuse make-up with the face.