Is he a hard-nosed prime ministerial aspirant or an earnest visionary?
Asked if he could have transformed “a pestilential and immoral cesspool” like Singapore into a glittering metropolis as Lee Kuan Yew had done, Lee’s predecessor, David Marshall, replied, no, he hadn’t the iron in his soul. Success extracts its price. I was reminded of that when Rahul Gandhi told the Confederation of Indian Industry he wasn’t yet a hard-nosed politician and was afraid of becoming bald.
There were other reminders of Singapore and Lee whom Rahul admires.
Lee has spent a lifetime comparing India and China. He even wrote an article in Forbes magazine discussing why China arouses fear and India doesn’t. If I remember right, his conclusion was that the checks and balances of India’s federal structure and democratic politics were seen as guaranteeing that industrial and military strength would be used for the embrace and not iron grip Rahul demonstrated.
The stress Rahul laid on job-oriented training and skill instead of obsolete learning recalled his visits to Singapore’s Institutes of Technical Education and Technical and Vocational Education and subsequent Indian plans to introduce some of those techniques.
Ironically, Singapore had no technical training facilities at all until Tata took it there in the early seventies. The verbatim record of a conversation between Lee and J R D Tata on the day of the first Pokharan blast ends with Lee thanking Tata “for establishing the first technical training institute in Singapore”.
Syamal Gupta, an engineer who pioneered operations as Tata’s first managing director in Singapore, says he succeeded because “import substitution was in our blood”. He started from scratch in Jurong’s mosquito-ridden swamp with “teem-teem” (feebly flickering in colloquial Bengali) electricity.
“Most other companies would have folded up and gone home,” Suppiah Dhanabalan, Singapore’s former foreign minister and chairman of Temasek Holdings, told me. “But Tata was unique for India’s private sector. It had stamina.”
Now, Indian polytechnics can’t keep up with the demand for technical expertise. This isn’t the first instance of India having to learn from abroad what it once taught others. Nor is it atypical that Tata is scarcely a presence in today’s Singapore.
Rahul’s polished performance invited comparison with his father’s and grandmother’s political debuts. I wasn’t around when someone remarked that when asked to speak, Indira Gandhi squeaked. But I do recall feeling intensely embarrassed at the lame image she projected after her first prime ministerial visit to the Kremlin.
An American reporter wanted to know if she had conveyed US concern on some matter of hostages or prisoners or whatever to her Soviet host. Yes, she mumbled. What was the response? Silence, and then in a small voice, “He didn’t reply.” The strident “Mon Generale”, as the bitterly hostile Minoo Masani dubbed her, who tied verbal knots round the Shah Commission’s pompous chairman, hadn’t yet emerged.
As for Rajiv, the will-I-won’t-I agony, torn between wife and mother, inclination and ambition, went on for so long that one lost all patience. I wrote an article called “The Reluctant Debutante” after the heroine of William Douglas-Home’s drawing room comedy. Rahul’s reluctance is about form and not substance. As reported in this column in January, he told a small group of Singaporeans, “I had consciously decided I would go into politics the day my father was assassinated to carry on with the work he was doing.”
Like everyone else, I had always assumed that just as all journalists aspire to be editors, all politicians aim to become prime minister. Rahul strengthened that belief by reportedly saying he “could have been prime minister at 25 if (he) wanted to”.
After Thursday’s performance, however, I am not so sure he wants to. Or, rather, whether Race Course Road and South Block are what he yearns for most. The job matters, of course, but perhaps not for itself. Perhaps, despite the sceptics and the cynics, he wants to “carry on with the work” he associates with his father more than he wants to sit in his father’s chair. What came through most strongly, especially in his admittedly long-winded replies to the two questions about water and federalism, were concern and compassion quite distinct from the responsibilities of office.
He knows and admits what’s wrong and knows, too, that answers can’t be produced like rabbits out of a hat. May be he’ll have some answers if, like Lee, he takes on the burden of power. That’s when his hair will start falling out and everyone will applaud the hard-nosed bald Rahul with iron in his soul. Somehow, I prefer the visionary without tailor-made solutions.