CHALLENGER IN CHIEF
RAHUL GANDHI, 47
The new Congress president led the party to its best showing in Gujarat in 32 years, taking the 2019 battle straight into the BJP camp
In many ways, 2017 will be marked as a watershed in Rahul Gandhi’s political career. The country witnessed his new avatar—relentless in public campaign, proactive on social media, and assertive in decisionmaking. By the year-end, he also took over as Congress president, an inevitable elevation that he had been avoiding for years. But this dramatic change had started with a failed experiment. In the run-up to the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, Rahul appointed Prashant Kishor as his party’s campaign strategist. Kishor had been the backroom strategist for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and for Nitish Kumar in the 2015 Bihar assembly elections. Many in the Congress ridiculed Rahul’s decision to seek Kishor’s services as a copycat approach. But Rahul did not pay heed and assured Kishor a free hand to run the campaign. Kishor was a professional strategist and his sole goal was to ensure victory for the Congress. He came up with radical ideas, such as making Priyanka Gandhi the chief ministerial candidate. He was ruthless in his analysis of the party’s weaknesses—the organisation was in the doldrums, the social media unit was no match to the BJP’s and most Hindus saw the Congress’s secularist positioning as a Muslim appeasement tool. The Congress’s debacle in Uttar Pradesh brought Kishor’s stint to an abrupt end, but Rahul had done his learning. “The association with Kishor gave Rahul an insight into how Modi creates a perception about what he stands for,” says a Congress general secretary. “He realised that the best way to take on Modi is to beat him at his own game.”
Within two months of the Uttar Pradesh defeat, Rahul appointed former Lok Sabha MP Divya Spandana, one of his favourites, as head of the party’s social media unit. He himself abandoned the cautious approach on Twitter, firing tweets that were witty and incisive in their attack on the
It is a year that will go down as significant in India’s economic history. A series of uncomfortable measures were announced, which jolted the economy, for better or worse. The man at the top is confident of leaving behind a formidable legacy. In a reflective conversation with Senior Editor SHWETA PUNJ, finance minister ARUN JAITLEY speaks about the learnings and challenges in the year gone by.
Q. The year 2017 witnessed many economic shake-ups. How would you look at this year going forward?
A. There are moments in history when structural changes are necessary and, if we look back, several important structural changes either got initiated or implemented this year. The first one, which was already a work in progress but got an impetus, was Aadhaar and rationalisation of subsidies to reach the target group. The second one—demonetisation—lasted for a few weeks, but the transformation from cash to digitisation is a major development. It has become a centrestage issue. There will still be cash in the system, but the movement towards digitisation is a very important one and a message has gone that it is no longer okay to deal in cash. The one with a permanent footprint is the Goods and Services Tax (GST). All the checkposts have gone, all the taxes have been merged into one. You have 17 taxes and 23 cesses merged into one. You only file one return. You pay your tax monthly and file your return annually.
The Monetary Policy Committee is operational. Then, there is the bankruptcy code. The debtor/ credit relationship has changed. Global analysts see these as landmark structural changes. Politicians will be politicians, they will have a weakness at times for not seeing beyond their nose. Two things were disappointing—the Congress took a retrograde position, secularism became pro-black money and anti-GST. My next step is to complete the bank recapitalisation process.
Q. We have had technocrat as well as astute politicians as FMs. How does one strike the right balance? Also, what would you
consider as your most challenging period this year?
A. A finance minister should have a basic understanding of the country, know where the shoe pinches and, hence, have some compassion in policy formulation. An ability to understand economic issues should certainly be there. You should be immune to pressures from political and commercial interests. There’s no easy day in the life of a finance minister.
Q. What about demonetisation? In hindsight, could you have done it better?
A. Secrecy was of utmost importance in demonetisation. One thing was clear: there would be short-term challenges but it would help us in the long run. Politically, we were certain demonetisation would help us. This was more the Prime Minister’s instinct than mine.
Q. We have had growth slowing. What are your key priorities going forward?
A. The impact of structural reforms is behind us and India will return to high growth trajectory. My priority now is bank recapitalisation.
Q. Who inspires you?
A. The two most charming politicians who stand out are Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pranab Mukherjee. Manmohan Singh was a better FM than PM and, as FM, Pranab Mukherjee was conservative and retrograde. P. Chidambaram was a better United Front FM than a UPA one. I saw the best of Advaniji in the ’90s. And in the case of Mr Narendra Modi, you can’t get a more hands-on man than him.
“One thing was clear: demonetisation would pose short-term challenges, but it would help us eventually”