#EscapeVelocity: Three reasons why the Rahul-bashing is unfair

Rahul Gandhi is once again the butt of Twitterati jokes that circle as usual on his lack of intelligence. The latest excuse for this hazing is his effort to use 'escape velocity' as an analogy to explain the socio-economic obstacles faced by Dalits in this country.

"Aeronautics mein ek escape velocity ka concept hota hai. Escape velocity matlab agar aap ne dharti se space mein jana hai... agar aap hamari dharti pe hai to 11.2 km per second aap ki velocity honi padegi. (There is a concept of escape velocity if you want to go into space from Earth... your velocity has to be 11.2 km/sec)," Rahul explained, comparing it to that of Jupiter's escape velocity of 60 km/sec.

Then he applied the concept to Dalit aspirations, saying, "Yahan Hindustan mein hamara jaat ka concept hai. Is mein bhi escape velocity hoti hai. Dalit community ko is dharti pe Jupiter ki escape velocity chahiye. (In India we have caste. Dalits need Jupiter's escape velocity on Earth)… Yahan aap ko bahut jyada tez dhakka marna padta hai. (You have to push very hard),"

The heckling was near-instantaneous: "Ideally Rahul G should have been given Nobel Prize for Physics for applying #Escapevelocity for social upliftment"; "Every time Rahul Gandhi speaks, the level of competition for who is the best comedian increases by 100 times"; "Peter Higgs might have won the Noble in Physics, but Rahul Gandhi won over stupidity."

The criticism of Rahul's remarks, however, is based on three assumptions, none of which hold up to scrutiny.

One, applying 'escape velocity' analogy to socio-economic issues is bizarre and stupid.

Except the term 'escape velocity' if often used in a variety of contexts, most recently to indicate economic recovery. The Guardian dubbed it "the hot new macro-economic buzzword" in July. A leading US economist, Jared Bernstein, even penned a blog post titled, "What Is This Thing Called…Escape Velocity?" It is also used in the context of poverty alleviation as in this much-cited paper by Harvard Professor of Economics Lawrence F Katz titled, "Achieving Escape Velocity: Neighborhood and School Interventions to Reduce Persistent Inequality." The term has now spread to all sorts of areas, from media biz  to emperor penguins.

Rahul isn't terminally stupid, but terminologically geeky.

Rahul Gandhi at addressing a National Awareness Camp for Scheduled Castes Empowerment in New Delhi. PTI

Rahul Gandhi at addressing a National Awareness Camp for Scheduled Castes Empowerment in New Delhi. PTI

Two, Rahul was talking 'above' his audience.

The most problematic aspect of this round of heckling is its subtext of elitism. The assumption is that his Dalit audience was blankly staring at him, thinking, 'What Jupiter-shupiter is Rahul Bhaiyya talking about?" Or as one Rahul detractor put it on Twitter, ‏"#Pappu confusing poor local chaps by terms such as Jupiter and #escapevelocity." Surely, none of these ganwars know their basic astronomy, or possess the intelligence to understand a basic principle of physics.

All this talk of 'escape velocity' as an example of Rahul's 'disconnect'  from the voters relies on a low estimation of their intelligence. They likely understood exactly what he was talking about —whether or not they were impressed by his speech. And whatever Rahul's other flaws, the good news is that he doesn't share the same patronising view of his audience as his detractors.

Three, his argument about Dalit empowerment is per se stupid.

It is proven fact that all traditionally disadvantaged communities face greater barriers to mobility than more affluent classes. Their members have to work twice as hard, and overcome a greater level of adversity. Rahul went on to connect the 'escape velocity' analogy to a bigger argument about upward mobility, taking a smart swipe at Mayawati along the way:

Underlining his claim that one or two Dalit leaders could not ensure the uplift of Dalits, Rahul said: "If you want to take this movement forward, then one or two Dalit leaders would not be enough. Lakhs of Dalit leaders are needed.... the leadership of the movement has been captured by Mayawati. She doesn't allow others to rise."

This isn't exactly rocket science — but Rahul made it sound like it was so (in part due to the unfortunate oratorial style of a pedantic school-teacher). And therein lies his real problem: the tendency to rely on complex terminology — who doesn't remember the infamous 'beehive' — to make straight-forward arguments. A metaphor or an analogy is used to make a complex concept more accessible and easy to understand. Rahul Gandhi does exactly the opposite: He uses a complex analogy to explain a simple concept.

This addiction to cool, overly intellectual terms — pernicious among media and corporate pundits — is the disease of the hipster wonk, an affliction shared by many of those laughing at Rahul on Twitter. But it is silly and disingenuous to latch on to one phrase to dismiss what is essentially a sound argument.

Rahul's primary deficit is not of content but of perception. A problem perfectly summed up a FakingNews article titled "Rahul Gandhi repeats a quote by Einstein, everyone laughs". As one of its fake experts puts it, “It no longer matters whether he says something while sporting a serious beard of after getting a youthful shave, people are now programmed to laugh at him."

But the Congress Vice-President's bigger problem could well be summed up by another possible fictitious headline: "Narendra Modi repeats quote from nursery rhyme; everyone cheers wildly."

Updated Date: Oct 09, 2013 20:16 PM

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