Men with muscular arms held the pressing hordes at bay. The doors were locked early, and many bejewelled and suited protesters waving invitation cards were left stranded outside. Inside the vast hall people squeezed two to a chair, and ambassadors jostled with tycoons and trophy wives, necks craned at the banks of huge screens and the television gantries flanking the stage. It looked like a Grateful Dead concert. But it wasn't. It was a millions-strong audience, across the nation and the social ether, waiting to hear the Dauphin of Indian politics speak, finally, to a business audience - an audience that has been much enamoured of an older man from a rival party who hosts Vibrant Gujarat jamborees and struts his stuff on every available platform, eyes firmly pinned on 7, Race Course Road.
Rahul Gandhi's April 4 speech was replete with his own Discovery of India - the painter from Purvanchal, the carpenters, the mother in a Mumbai slum - and it was interesting to watch how a 42-year-old man, who has never run a government or a company but is unto the manor born, talks familiarly to a group like the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), beset by falling investment, high interest rates, rising inventories, and looking desperately for the sparkle to fly from some magic wand - and tell them, rather patronisingly, "Over the past couple of years, you have done a tremendous job. The image of India has changed."
Only a couple of years? The Congress party has been in power, aided by coalition partners, for nine years now, and the economy has been listless or moribund for close to a third of that period. But Rahul Gandhi, anointed his party's vice president in January, had not a word to say in more than an hour of earnest speaking about the state of business or the southward drift of major economic indicators.
Rahul Gandhi (on stage) addressing the CII gathering. In the foreground amid the audience are leading industrialists (from left to right) Hari Bhartia, Sunil Mittal and Rahul Bajaj Photo: Shekhar Ghosh/www.indiatodayimages.com
Nor did he draw a map for the becalmed captains of industry listening to him. But the audience was impressed. The heir apparent had spoken in a mixture of young-India argot (the word "boss" cropped up frequently), self-deprecation, some leg-pulling, and many homilies about movement, rising tides, and the importance of exponential (versus incremental) change.
One of the questions many business tycoons in the gathering probably had on their minds was: is Gandhi anti-industry? Until then, the young Congress vicepresident had met with villagers, chatted with colleges students and talked to foreign delegates, but he had never addressed an industry forum. So, they were looking to his speech for some clues to his economic vision and the direction the economy would take if he became prime minister. His past actions suggested he could be anti-industry, or at least against big business. For instance, in 2008, he supported the tribal people of Orissa's Niyamgiri Hills against a plan by UK-based mining group Vedanta Resources to mine bauxite there. And when farmers in Uttar Pradesh's Bhatta-Parsaul village were fighting for more compensation for land acquired from them to build a highway, Gandhi was at the forefront of their supporters.
But there was another side to Gandhi that confused corporate India. The man seen as prime-minister-in-waiting had pitched strongly for allowing foreign investment in retail when even the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and most regional parties had opposed the move.
Corporate India did breathe easy after Gandhi's 75-minute address. He began by showering praise on business and said it had a huge role in changing the international community's poor perception of India. "I believe that this country cannot move forward without you. I have come here because I want to forge a partnership with you. A long-term partnership to take this country forward," he told the gathering that included industrialists as prominent as Rahul Bajaj and Sunil Bharti Mittal.
When CII President Adi Godrej introduced him as "somebody who spends a lot of time with poor people", Gandhi was quick to break away from being typecast. India could go forward only if there was a partnership between three components - the poor, the middle-class, and business, he said. Gandhi went on to express his faith in industry's capacity to tap the potential of the country's billion-plus population and the entrepreneurial spirit of the youth, saying India was a complex country buzzing constantly like a "beehive".
"China is referred to as the 'dragon' and India as an 'elephant'. But we are not an elephant, we are a beehive," he told the meeting. Gandhi's speech was high on anecdotes, but critics said they had expected a little more elaboration of his own vision for industry.
Large sections of the Twitterverse were scathing: one of the top trending topics on Twitter while Gandhi was speaking was #Pappucii. "His talk was too abstract. We expected some kind of a roadmap from him. We got none," said a business executive on condition of anonymity. In contrast, most business tycoons could not stop gushing.
"These were completely new insights," said Bajaj Auto Chairman Rahul Bajaj. "Inspiring," said Sunil Bharti Mittal, Chairman of Bharti Enterprises. "Brilliant ideas," added Adi Godrej, Chairman of the Godrej Group. And according to infotech company Mastek co-founder Ashank Desai: "Rahul Gandhi connected with the industry."
Gandhi's speech was not just about connecting with industry, it was also about winning it over. Predictably, he sought to counter Corporate India's starry-eyed perception of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi - the BJP's leading prime ministerial aspirant. Although he did not name Modi, he made a veiled jibe. "We have to move away from the idea of the guy on the horse who is going to come charging through and India is going to be fixed," he said. "No individual, Manmohanji or anyone, can fix the problem."
But the one political question Gandhi cleverly sidestepped was: does he want to become India's next prime minister? His answer? "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, it's important what a billion Indians think."