Rahul Gandhi in US: How to take questions and how not to answer

His address at UC Berkeley was a mixed bag that didn’t prove the Congress vice-president’s readiness for 2019.

 |  7-minute read |   12-09-2017
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Rahul Gandhi is on a two-week “study tour” of the United States to hone his preparedness for Lok Sabha elections of 2019. His first stop was the University of California at Berkeley, one of the biggest and most prestigious institutes of higher education anywhere in the world, and one of US’ “Ivy Leagues”. Gandhi delivered a lecture at UC Berkeley as part of the university’s “India At 70” series, and it’s here that he partially indicated his “readiness” to be the PM candidate for his party in 2019.

While Gandhi touched upon various pressing issues, including the philosophy of non-violence, liberalism being under attack in contemporary India, of PM Narendra Modi and the politics of divisiveness he stands for, on the troll factory abusing liberals and seculars online, on the murder of Gauri Lankesh for her opposition to Hindutva, as well as demonetisation, GST, etc, his speech didn’t convey the same sense of confidence with which the forces he’s standing against are advancing.

In other words, Gandhi didn’t espouse as much confidence as the Congress and his supporters would like him to, in order to be successful at what he’s set out to do.

On non-violence

Gandhi struck all the right notes. For example, he passionately defended the philosophy of non-violence, saying it’s hard work, not for the timid soul. Gandhi said: “Instead of I having an idea, an idea has me is the basis of non-violence propagated by Mahatama Gandhi. Using violence against a person, who is infected by an idea, actually, results in an idea spreading more aggressively.

Non-violence is hard work and not for the timid and weak. This beautiful struggle is under vicious attack in India, but non-violence is the only idea on which humanity can survive the connectivity of 21st century.”

He also batted for India’s diversity and plurality, which too is under threat from the rightwing forces, which want to homogenise the country along the Hindu majoritarian lines.

Gandhi said: “India is a massive and one of the world’s most complex countries. Anyone who thinks he understands India is a fool. According to most Western academics and intelligence agencies in the middle of the last century, India was supposed to fail. Most experts predicted that it would fall apart, torn to pieces by its own diversity and contradictions. And yet, somehow as Indira Gandhi said when asked if India leans left or right, India came out standing straight and tall. The idea of ahimsa and non-violence has allowed the huge mass of people to stand up together.”

On development, economy and demonetisation

Gandhi emphasised that India has managed both its extreme poverty and brought millions of people out of below poverty line status without compromising on the democratic model. He said: “India’s partition was the bloodiest migration recorded in history. At Independence, there were many people who were poor and would sleep hungry.

There is no democratic country in history which has raised so many people out of poverty as India. Small and medium size entrepreneurs are the bedrock of India’s economic progress. Unlike China, we have to create jobs in a democratic environment and these jobs will come from small and medium scale industries. However, currently, all the attention is paid to the top 100 companies.”

He added that decisions like demonetization were unilaterally taken without any consultation whatsoever, and the results have been disastrous. Gandhi said: “Decisions like demonetisation were taken in a unilateral manner, without asking the chief economic advisor or the Parliament. This has caused huge damage to the Indian economy and GDP. Millions of jobs were wiped out because of the overnight cash ban. GST, another economic policy taken by the government has put tremendous pressure on the economy.”

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On dynasty and future of Congress

Gandhi came out almost in defence of dynasty politics, though he said “this is how it works in India”, and “don’t blame me alone”. He underlined how dynasty runs in every one of Indian operations, whether it’s politics or Bollywood, in a discordant note that sounded almost like Saif Ali Khan’s recent defence of nepotism.

“Actually most parties in India have that problem. So don’t give us stick because Akhilesh Yadav is a dynast. Stalin is a dynast. (Prem Kumar) Dhumal’s son is a dynast….Even Abhishek Bachchan is a dynast. That is how India runs. Don’t get after me because that is how the entire country is running.”

On Prime Minister Narendra Modi

While Gandhi admitted that PM Modi is a better communicator than he himself, he underlined that Modi doesn’t converse with people he works with.

“PM Modi has good communication skills. He knows how to spread his message to several groups in a crowd. I’m an Opposition leader, but Mr Modi is also my Prime Minister. He’s a very good communicator, probably much better than me… but what I sense is that he doesn’t converse with people he works with. This has been told to me even by the BJP party members.”

What Rahul Gandhi’s speech proves

The problem with Rahul Gandhi was never that he was saying the wrong things, but that his message with the right words and the right take wasn’t getting communicated enough, wasn’t being lapped up by those listening to him as the powerful alternative to PM Narendra Modi’s new-scheme-a-day mode of handling the political economy.

Yes, Gandhi himself admits the powerful oratory that Modi commands, because of which he can mould the public sphere in his own image, garner tremendous following and loyalty amongst his supporters. Yet, the opposition to Modi-led BJP and its politics of Hindutva isn’t driven by the Congress or the Opposition parties.

It’s driven by the civil society; by the band of activists, journalists, rights lawyers, writers, intellectuals and some Bollywood rebels who demand accountability, who oppose draconian impositions on food habits, on religious persecution, and many other fronts. Even the judiciary has intervened from time to time and helped the cause of our democratic republic.

The Opposition has gone from soft to limp, and Rahul Gandhi’s leadership hasn’t put a shine on it. In fact, on most days, the Congress social media representatives would be seen picking a bone with those very liberal and secular journalists who have been fighting tooth and nail against the Hindutva establishment of Modi and his band of ministers, who question the RSS’ chief Mohan Bhagwat’s “ethos of society” argument to build law based on thinly veiled Hindu majoritarianism.

Rahul Gandhi cannot go on repeating ad nauseam what the left-leaning or centrist public intellectuals, those secular and liberal authors, have already said a million times. The country needs a new message, an alternative politics couched in an attractive oppositional mantle, and that needs to emanate from Rahul Gandhi, who’s the “face of the Opposition”.

Gandhi, despite hitting the right notes, and despite batting for non-violence, plurality, democracy, secularism, constitutionalism, and equality, is nevertheless not able to put all these values together and offer a new catch-phrase for Indians to swallow en masse. He needs to understand that unless there’s a positive message, the anti-Modi rhetoric would further alienate him from the masses that have wholeheartedly accepted Modi and his brand of a Hindutva-laced idea of digital development as India’s future.

Gandhi has less than two years left to prove his mettle. And this is something that he can’t be schooled into, “study tour” notwithstanding. Either he delivers now or steps aside for someone who would be able to galvanise the Opposition. Time is running out.

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