The Pulse

Rahul Makes First Impression on India Inc.

Rahul Gandhi steps out for an important address. Did he hurt or help his chances for 2014?

Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the Indian National Congress, has been in active politics for the last nine years. From the time he joined the political mainstream he has been touted as the future leader of the Congress Party.

But Rahul has continued to defy the expectations political analysts have set for the heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, by being often seen but rarely heard on the political issues of the day.

That began to change on Thursday when Gandhi first engaged with the national audience by giving an address to the annual meeting of the industry body, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). This occasion marked the first time the Congress leader, who is known for his poverty reduction advocacy especially in rural areas, was to engage the captains of Indian industry. For the entrepreneurial class it was an opportunity to listen to a man who many suspect will be the Congress Party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections. Industrialists were eager to have this opportunity as evidenced by their willingness to wait for an hour or more to get inside the auditorium.

They were likely disappointed. In an address that lasted over an hour Gandhi chose not to talk about how to return rapid growth to the modern economy, as his audience would have liked, but rather used the occasion to make a passionate appeal for ensuring more inclusive growth and empowering ordinary people by the decentralizing of power.

Political analysts believe Gandhi’s emphasis on inclusive growth is designed to counter the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, Narendra Modi’s model of development, which champions individualism and tends to favor the wealthy.

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In the run-up to Gandhi’s address to the CII the media has been building the event as Modi vs Rahul. The very fact Rahul was using a CII platform to break his long silence was alluded as a counter to the right wing leader who has been addressing business meetings and seminars to underline his vision of economic growth.

But young Gandhi’s first public engagement in some time is more than just a Modi vs. Rahul argument.

It was also a major milestone in Rahul’s career. After nine years the young politician has finally outlined his vision for India’s future, and it is one where local bodies are empowered and all of society gains from India’s economic growth. In doing so he came across as not someone that’s eager for personal power but rather someone that is interested in changing the dysfunctional political system for the greater good.

Notably, by calling for large if unspecific changes to the political system Rahul was hoping to portray himself as an outsider to the system despite his family’s long political history.

Despite the lack of specifics and Rahul’s failure to offer any solution to India’s current economic slowdown, some in industry praised the speech and spoke favorably of a future with Gandhi.

The larger picture that emerges from Rahul’s frank and open engagement with the nation is that the Congress party is offering an alternative to Modi’s model of development. In that sense Gandhi was framing the debate that is likely to be at the forefront of the 2014 elections.