New Delhi: Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and a 'contender' for prime minister in 2014, on Thursday offered a broad vision of 21st century India in his first major speech to business leaders that critics called vague and rambling. Addressing a gathering of Indian business tycoons in New Delhi, Gandhi did not touch on any of the issues bedevilling Asia's third-largest economy such as high inflation, decelerating investment, a ballooning current account deficit and red tape that ties up infrastructure projects for years.
Instead, in a speech that was long on imagery and anecdotes but short on specifics, he called for a revamp of the political system to better respond to the needs of India's 1.2 billion people, a closer relationship between the government and big business and unleashing the potential of the Indian "beehive". "Millions of Indians are brimming with energy. We are now sitting on an unprecedented tide of transformation. This tremendous movement of people and ideas are going to define this country in the 21st century," Gandhi said.
The hour-long address to the Confederation of Indian Industry, which was broadcast on all major television stations, was closely watched by economists, diplomats and investors keen to gain insight into the thinking of the shy and secretive 42-year-old lawmaker, who rarely speaks in public and shuns the limelight. "He wants to change the political system and how it works which is an interesting thought. But the important part is execution about which he is vague or does not yet have answers," said Anjali Verma, economist at PhillipCapital.
The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) called the speech confused, while the top trending topic on Twitter in India while Gandhi was speaking was #PappuCII. 'Pappu' is a derogatory colloquial Hindi word meaning "dumb kid". Many had expected Gandhi to use the platform of the CII event to outline his economic vision for a country with ambitions to become a major power but still struggling to uplift hundreds of millions of people mired in poverty.
"I think he was very honest and made the points straight from his heart," said Rakesh Bharti Mittal, vice-chairman and managing director of Bharti Enterprises, one of India's biggest business groups, who was in the audience. But, he added: "Ultimately, whoever leads the country will need an economic agenda."
While Gandhi has not said whether he wants to become the prime minister, he is the face of the ruling Congress party's 2014 election campaign and is widely seen as his party's leading candidate for prime minister, if it does well in the polls. He ridiculed the national guessing game over whether or not he will become prime minister, saying: "It is all smoke. The only relevant question in this country is how can we give our people voice. It is not important what Rahul Gandhi thinks, its important what a billion Indians think."
Gandhi's rare public utterances mean that there is a huge interest in what he says when he does speak. Little is known about what he thinks about the important issues of the day and what he would do if he were to become prime minister. His father, grandmother and great-grandfather were prime ministers and his mother, who is head of the ruling Congress party, is arguably the most powerful politician in India.
The Congress party appointed him vice president in January in an effort to boost his profile. But he has been overshadowed by Narendra Modi, the charismatic pro-business leader of the BJP who harbours prime ministerial ambitious and has been loudly touting his record as chief minister of Gujarat, a state with a booming economy. Media often present the 2014 election as a face-off between Rahul, best known for his famous last name, and Modi, who has been lauded by Indian corporate leaders and foreign companies for his business-friendly policies.
The mixed reception for Gandhi's speech is likely to renew speculation about possible Congress party alternatives for prime minister. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not ruled out serving a third term, while Finance Minister P Chidambaram is also frequently mentioned as a possible candidate.