CHALLENGER IN CHIEF

RAHUL GANDHI, 47

India Today - - OTHER NEWS MAKER - By Kaushik Deka

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”

CHANDRADEE­P KUMAR

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