The recent speech of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi at the University of California, Berkley presents him in a new political avatar. He is not often taken seriously by the media and political experts. Nevertheless, his speech projected him in a role he has been expected to play for a long time now. Sagging morale of the Congress, disunity among the Opposition parties and the Modi government’s blunders seem to have infused a new life in the Congress heir’s otherwise flagging political career.
In 1949, India’s first Prime Minister and Gandhi’s grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru had delivered a speech at the same University. Almost 70 years later, speaking at that same American university was not the Rahul Gandhi as seen before, reading a prepared script with manufactured indignation. Rather, he appeared relaxed, confident and poised.
By admitting to his own and his party’s drawbacks and highlighting the BJP-led NDA government’s shortcomings, he not only shed his past inhibitions but also indulged in a damage-control exercise of refurbishing his image which has been persistently smeared through a campaign of calumny run by the BJP’s propaganda machinery.
There have been mixed responses to Gandhi’s speech. While Congress party leaders have praised him for his candour and eloquence, BJP leaders have found many faults in it.
In a new avatar
While delivering his speech Gandhi sounded like an affable person and his talk came with touches of candour and self-deprecation. While avoiding tall talks, he took jabs at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He dealt with wide-ranging issues: from Modi government’s economic policies especially demonetisation and GST, to violence and politics of hate, and the troll armies on the social media as well as his own party’s dynasty politics and arrogance.
While asserting that all attention in India was paid to the 100 top companies, including the banking system being monopolised by them, he said that the decision on demonetisation was taken unilaterally by circumventing the Parliamentary recourse, and has been instrumental in causing tremendous loss to the economy and throwing millions of small entrepreneurs out of business. Gandhi’s criticism of demonetisation is attested by the fact that the GDP has taken a two per cent hit as was predicted by Congress leader and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
While referring to the politics of violence and hate getting encouragement from the Modi government, Gandhi cited examples of journalists being shot, lynchings of Dalits, killings of Muslims on the suspicion of eating beef, etc. On the crucial question of dynasty, Gandhi said that most of the country runs on dynastic basis, citing examples of prevalence of dynastic tendencies in many regional parties.
He also alluded to dominance of this system in the corporate sector and showbiz as well.
According to statistics, in 2014 in the Lok Sabha 22 per cent MPs had a dynastic background. Among the larger parties, Congress led the pack with 48 per cent and the BJP had 15 per cent but in terms of sheer numbers, the BJP, not the Congress, had the largest number of MPs who were proteges of MPs. A political expert has pointed out that it is not just India that runs that way, many countries have dynasties whether in politics, business or showbiz. Even in the US, there are the Bushes and Clintons and Barrymores and Fondas.
Gandhi was bold enough to admit the drawbacks in his own party when he candidly accepted that the Congress had become “arrogant” after 2012 and stopped conversing with ordinary people. Some critics, while pointing out prevalence of ‘High Command Culture’ and absence of intra-party democracy within the Congress, expect that Gandhi should take measures to broaden the party’s base and establish rapport with the masses. He should emulate the example of his grandmother Indira Gandhi who built the Congress from scratch.
The tone and tenor of criticism heaped by BJP leaders on Gandhi’s California speech demonstrates that perhaps the party is faced with a conundrum on the impact of the Congress vice-president’s new sense of confidence and the fact that it is being appreciated by people.
Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani held a press conference within hours to criticise him. Seeing Irani’s reaction, one can understand her anger as Gandhi had touched a raw nerve of the Modi regime by pointed at growing intolerance and politics of violence and polarisation. Many other BJP leaders have joined her in criticising him in a foreign land by talking about the BJP being the “fulcrum” of hate politics.
According to a political expert, the fact is that Gandhi can justify his statement by saying that the truth needs to be told and his critics can respond by saying that even if this were true, he should have avoided the statement in a foreign land. Similarly, Modi’s critics can ask how he can demand fairness and justice when he himself has done the same by vilifying the previous government during his foreign trips. For instance, during his visit to Singapore Modi had said, ”Before I became PM, people used to regret that they were born in India”. The expert has argued that the BJP’s rather strong reaction has made Gandhi a national headline.
One political commentator has drawn attention to the growing reluctance within the BJP, the Modi government and the RSS to accommodate a rival’s viewpoints and often concerted efforts are made to raise the temperature of debate and subdue even an iota of disagreement, especially on social media. It is in this backdrop that The New York Times in its recent editorial observed: “…but whom you follow on Twitter is considered an indicator of your taste, and a handful of the accounts in his registry have drawn sharp criticism, especially now… some of the accounts Mr. Modi follows on Twitter have made misogynistic comments, spread anti-Muslim feelings and dangerous rumours, or made remarks that do not always jibe with his message of tolerance.” In this backdrop, Gandhi’s observation gets vindicated.
Rahul Gandhi’s clarion call from California signals that the 2019 General Elections would be a no-holds barred battle. Some experts opine that orchestrated surveys may have predicted an easy win for Modi in 2019, but Congress, especially Gandhi’s new avatar, is unlikely to offer this to BJP on a platter. The Congress vice-president has set the tone of the upcoming battle from California. Nothing is permanent and predictable in Indian politics and the wind can change direction within days.
The simmering discontent among the masses against the Modi government and its disenchantment with the BJP, especially amongst the student community, is getting articulated in the outcome of recently held elections in the universities where NSUI wrestled top posts from the ABVP and this is interpreted by some experts as an endorsement of Gandhi’s observations at the US university.
While hailing Gandhi for handling the questions put to him at the university with sincerity and succeeding in giving the audience a sense of the man behind the famous name, some experts suggest that he should take more questions from people rather than giving speeches. This will give him an advantage over PM Modi who has never deigned to subject himself to a press conference in the three years that he has been in power.
A start has been made in California and Rahul Gandhi has to keep up that dynamism.