Rahul Gandhi’s Q&A With Top Economists Is An Own-Goal

When I first began anchoring, I was told that I should cut down on the jokes. People want a person they can trust, not someone who makes them laugh. Similarly, people want leaders who have solutions, not ones who ask questions. Of course, they know leaders aren't know-it-alls, and they need to consult experts with domain knowledge. But a good leader is expected to do all this behind-the-scenes, and come to the public with answers.

However, that wasn't the biggest problem with the successive interviews Rahul Gandhi conducted with two fine economists. If anything, it showed that Raghuram Rajan and Abhijit Banerjee take Rahul seriously enough to give him their time. It was also a good advertisement to the global community of the former chief economist of the IMF and a Nobel laureate being happy to work with India's main opposition leader.

The problem was in Rahul's messaging. It is clear that the Nehru-Gandhi heir believes his politics needs to overtly target the poor. This is partly because his heart beats to the left. It is also because he thinks the poor are at the receiving end of Modinomics and are the most likely to vote against him. I have argued earlier that this is a misreading. India's poor, who mostly live at basic subsistence level, are marginally better off under Modi than they were during the UPA years. That is one reason that Rahul's suit-boot-ki-sarkar trope didn't fetch any electoral dividends.

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Former RBI chief Raghuram Rajan

The bigger mistake is to speak to the poor - or about them - in the language of the liberal elite. Rahul realised that at some point in his chat with Rajan when he broke into Hindi. This was a question about spending for the poor. Rajan, too, answered in Hindi. After that, they went back to the language they are most comfortable with. And, I don't mean just English, but terms and concepts that most people find difficult to understand, and the majority of India's English-speaking middle-class finds boring.

When Rahul is communicating in English, reaching out on video, he needs to realise who his target audience is. The middle class has been desensitized to the problems of India's poor. They feel bad about it when they see migrant workers marching on the highways, but they are too committed to the system to question it. The middle class wants to hear someone who takes up their issues - the fact that there are no white collar jobs, that small entrepreneurs have no revenue, the start-up ecosystem is broken, investments in shares and mutual funds seem risky, asset prices have been stagnant and that the wealth effect that the urban middle-class experienced in the previous decade has virtually disappeared.

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Congress leader Rahul Gandhi conducted interviews with former RBI chief Raghuram Rajan and Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee

Why, you would ask, should Rahul care about this miniscule minority of Indians, who make up less than 10 percent of our population? Because they are the opinion-makers. They inhabit the various institutions - media, schools, colleges, courts, corporate offices - where ruling ideas are generated and reproduced. The economic slowdown has created conditions for disenchantment and despair amongst the middle class. It is for Rahul and the Congress to convert this angst into a political force. For that, they need to develop tactics and strategies to insert themselves into middle class discourse. 
Rahul's continuous focus on the poor alienates the middle class, which has spent 30 years worshipping trickle-down economics. It worries India Inc - not just the captains of industry, but also the entire hierarchy of managers and professionals who earn their living off it. You cannot sympathise with a leader who decries a suit-boot-ki-sarkar when you yourself are clad in suit and boot. Rahul's self-created anti-corporate image makes it difficult for top business houses to trust him; it is natural for them to fear that if he became PM, government policy will take a sharp left turn. In fact, there is a significant section of India's rich who want a secular alternative but cannot bring themselves to back an overtly leftist Rahul.

The only way to get backing from big business is to take up their issues. India's corporates have seen their margins shrink, there are virtually no investment opportunities, they prefer to buy back shares and handover cash in dividends and bonuses than put it into building factories and offices. There are murmurs in Mumbai, but there is no politician willing to amplify the whispers. If Rahul raises those issues, he will suddenly find space in corporate-owned national media, which has played a crucial role in painting him as Pappu. Rahul's messaging will also find resonance amongst the English-speaking classes, which will show up in television ratings and make it even easier for news channels to be more sympathetic to the Wayanad MP.

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Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee

There is one more reason why Rahul needs to woo India's corporates. In four years from now, when India votes to elect another Lok Sabha, the Congress will need at least a 25 percent vote share to lead a coalition government in 2024. And these votes have to come from the BJP's share and not from regional parties for there to be any chance of a non-NDA government at the centre.

That will require serious hard work and loads of money. There is a principle in marketing called "the Rule of Seven", which says that a customer needs to interact with a brand an average of seven times before making a purchase. The BJP knows that and spends massive amounts on elections - on rallies, social media, door-to-door campaigns, surveys, front page ads, hoardings and TV commercials. In the 2019 elections, it spent an estimated Rs 27,000 crore. That works out to Rs.1,200 per vote that it managed to get. By 2024, inflation will make that more than Rs 1,400 per vote. If the Congress had to spend at the same rate, it would need about Rs 23,000 crore in 2024.

You can't raise that kind of money by collecting chanda from party workers and well-wishers. It can only come from big-ticket funding by corporate-backed trusts. Since 2013, most of that money has been going to the BJP. Rahul's overt anti-corporate rhetoric has only made it more difficult for the Congress to get a decent share of that corpus. Rahul and his team have to now reach out to the India's influential top 1 percent to be able to stay in the game. This is the realpolitiks which Rahul Gandhi cannot escape.

And while he reopens the door to his right, he also needs to focus on how to reach the poor - and that won't happen by interviewing another economist in English.

(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.