How about some specifics, young man? Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg News
How about some specifics, young man? Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg News

You know an interview is in trouble when in the first five minutes, the subject starts speaking in the third person. “To understand that question,” the scion of India’s Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, hemmed when asked in his first TV sit-down last night if he feared a head-to-head confrontation with opposition leader Narendra Modi, “you have to understand a little bit about who Rahul Gandhi is.”

And, er, who might that be? “What Rahul wants to do, is Rahul Gandhi and millions of youngsters in this country want to change the way the system in this country works. What Rahul Gandhi wants to do is empower the women in this country, wants to unleash the power of these women.” There was much more in this vein: The transcript of the 90-minute interview runs to some 13,000 words, most of it equally banal and occasionally creepy.

Mocking the 43-year-old Rahul -- the joyous focus of the Indian media today -- may be too easy. He deserves some credit for submitting to persistent questioning from interviewer Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of Times Now. The charismatic Modi may be more visible (even employing holograms of himself so he can address more than one campaign rally of a time), but he’s not much more accessible to the press. He hasn’t given an on-the-record interview to the foreign media since telling Reuters last July that he felt as bad for the Muslims killed in a 2002 pogrom in his state of Gujarat as he would a puppy that he’d run over in his car.

Indeed, with four months to go before parliamentary elections, Indian voters are presented with an unappetizing slew of choices. Polls show Gandhi, a reluctant and incompetent campaigner in the best of times, is set to lead the scandal-ridden Congress to one of its worst drubbings ever. Arvind Kejriwal, founder of the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party, has frittered away much of the enthusiasm generated by his outsider anti-corruption movement after barely a month in office as chief minister of Delhi. Modi still generates enormous enthusiasm among his followers, but he’s done precious little to assuage the fears of those who see him as a Hindu hard-liner, unrepentant over the 2002 riots and all-too-likely to intensify frictions with nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Under questioning, Gandhi kept repeating that he didn’t want to talk about “superficialities.” Fair enough. Yet the problem is that for months now, both he and his opponents have only addressed “deeper” issues in relatively superficial ways. More than once last night Gandhi suggested that he wanted to transform India into a manufacturing center to rival China without -- as the Economist’s Adam Roberts wisely noted -- so much as hinting how he would surmount the longstanding hurdles: poor education, restrictive land and labor laws, lack of power, poor infrastructure. As for cleaning up Indian politics, Gandhi pointed to the open primaries Congress is testing this year -- in 15 out of 545 constituencies.

In his brief stint in office, Kejriwal has shown himself better at agitprop than governing — snarling traffic with a protest against the police (which are controlled by the federal government) as if he were still manning the barricades. Populist measures like disallowing foreign investment in Delhi retail, and promising households 20,000 free liters of water every month, hardly address the central question: how to create jobs for the “common” men and women whom the party claims to serve.

Even the ostensibly pro-business Modi essentially asks voters to trust his personality rather than his party’s economic policies, which remain somewhat confused. In Gujarat he’s shown himself to be a doer, popular among business executives tired of red tape and endless demands for bribes. What exactly he’d do in national office -- and how he’d do it, assuming the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party falls short of an outright majority and has to form a coalition to rule -- remains maddeningly vague.

Clearly Gandhi is not going to beat Modi on personality. The internal party reforms the Congress heir has focused on for the last few years — and which he repeatedly touted in his interview — are incremental at best, hardly the stuff of a winning campaign. Neither Congress nor the BJP is suddenly going to convince voters that their anti-corruption credentials are better than those of Kejriwal, who rose to prominence on the campaign for an independent anti-graft watchdog.

Policy is not Gandhi’s strong suit. And after presiding over a halving of the GDP growth rate, Congress has little credibility left on the economy. Still, he’d do better to start talking more specifically about how to revive growth and how exactly to create that manufacturing sector -- critical to absorb the tens of millions of young Indians soon to enter the labor force. At least he wouldn’t sound as silly as he does talking about himself.

(Nisid Hajari is a member of the Bloomber View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter @NisidHajari.)

To contact the writer of this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.