Rahul Gandhi and real tests of leadership

Rahul Gandhi’s leadership of the Congress is being tested. Where does he stand on jobs, secularism and democracy? His promises of farm loan waivers and a minimum income guarantee scheme are populist. In the long run, more Indians will need jobs and the economic changes necessary to create them. If voted to power, what will the Congress do to generate employment? Unless he spells out his plans in detail, Mr. Gandhi’s talk of progress will ring as hollow as that of the ruling BJP.

Mr. Gandhi’s idea of a minimum income guarantee resonates with the BJP’s idea of a universal basic income (UBI), which was presented by Arvind Subramanian when he was Chief Economic Adviser. It was rejected by then Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog, Arvind Panagariya, on the grounds that India lacks the fiscal room to implement such a scheme. The only country that has experimented with a UBI is Finland, which has a per capita income of about $41,000, compared to India’s $2,134. Finland’s UBI reportedly made more people happy, but did not create jobs. It also imposed an extra burden on the state. More generally, many Scandinavians and Germans would probably say that a country has to create wealth in order to create welfare. How does that sound to Indians?

Then there is the question of religious issues. Recently, the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh invoked the National Security Act against three men accused of cow slaughter. While Mr. Gandhi’s Congress is making the BJP’s authoritarianism an election issue, this act shows that the Congress government can be as high-handed as the BJP government it seeks to displace.

Especially at a time when high unemployment figures are making headlines, it should be remembered that the cow slaughter ban not only impacts the beef export industry, which is worth about $4 billion, but also implies coercion against those Indians who are not Hindus. Will Mr. Gandhi’s soft Hindutva build new social bridges? Divided on the issue, some Congresspersons have asked whether cows are more important than human beings. It is precisely these divisions that will test Mr. Gandhi’s mettle.

Mr. Gandhi has also lambasted the BJP’s use of Aadhaar as an instrument of authoritarianism, intended to disempower citizens. Will the Congress do away with the relevant legislation on Aadhaar if it comes to power? What will the party do to ensure that a Congress government will not misuse authority in an analogous manner?

All these issues — jobs, equality, and secularism — are intertwined. Voters would like to know how Mr. Gandhi’s Congress will handle them. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., leadership is about moulding consensus and showing the way.

The writer is a founding professor of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi

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Printable version | Apr 30, 2021 6:43:50 PM |

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