In a carefully crafted programme, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has managed to pitch Gandhi family scion and newly appointed Congress Party vice-president Rahul Gandhi against Arun Jaitley, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, and a seasoned politician who has also held several ministerial berths during the NDA government.

At the CII annual general meeting and national conference being held at the Ashoka Hotel here on April 4, Mr. Gandhi will be the first speaker at a special plenary session to be held at 10.45 a.m., while Mr. Jaitley will deliver the one-hour valedictory session at 4.45 p.m.

Even though the event has a line-up of other prominent speakers like Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Sheila Dixit, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Praful Patel, Vijay Panda and Arun Maira, it is unlikely that they will generate the same level of interest as Mr. Gandhi and Mr Jaitely. It is widely expected that both these speakers will use this national business platform to deliver political messages as India goes into an election mode.

For Mr. Gandhi, this is his first big speech on a business platform, nearly two months after he was appointed Congress vice-president in Jaipur on January 19. It also comes on the back of a statement by chief spokesperson of the party, Janardan Dwivedi, that the relationship between the PM and Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi was unique, could not be easily replaced, and was in all probability, the ideal model for the future as well.

This will also be Mr. Gandhi’s first public speech on business and economic issues at a time that the economy is suffering a slowdown and widespread industry allegations of a paralysis in governance and decision-making. A defence on these issues figured prominently in Dr. Singh’s inaugural address to the CII membership on April 3.

Mr. Jaitley’s speech is expected to be political for the most part, while using a national economic platform which is expected to be televised live. Speaking to The Hindu , Mr. Jaitley said, “My focus will be on the failure of the government to use good governance to create a favourable economic environment. It is the lack of leadership and consequent indecisiveness that has hurt the Indian economy and telecom is the strongest example of how a sector with demonstrably the best performance has been brought to ruin owing to a leadership deficit.”

Efforts to elicit information about Mr. Gandhi’s speech remained unsuccessful with most senior Congressmen and Cabinet Ministers feigning ignorance. A senior Cabinet Minister confessed, “Only Rahul Gandhi and his speech writers would know”.

Mr. Gandhi faces three big challenges while delivering his speech on Thursday: First, it comes on the back of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches at the Sri Ram College of Commerce, and more recently at the India Today conclave held in Delhi. Both of these focused on economic development and governance, which will be viewed as a benchmark by business and television audiences worldwide for Mr. Gandhi’s speech on Thursday.

First big speech

Second, this will be Mr. Gandhi’s first big speech on an industry platform, which will put his delivery under sharp scrutiny. He usually reads from a written script, in sharp contrast to both Mr. Modi and Mr. Jaitley, who prefer to speak extempore.

Finally, the program gives Mr. Jaitley five hours to rebut claims, promises, directions or even allegations that may be included in Mr. Gandhi’s speech.

Asked whether he would take on Mr. Gandhi directly, Mr. Jaitley admitted that this would depend on the content of Mr. Gandhi’s speech.

In the past, PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Congress president Sonia Gandhi have also effectively used the CII business platform to deliver political messages.