Rahul Gandhi is beginning to assemble a package of political arguments against Narendra Modi’s government and its Hindu nationalist allied organizations that will form the basis of the Congress Party’s campaign at India’s coming general election. At the same time, he is emerging as a leading politician with messages that he hopes will win votes.
On a visit to London over the past two days, he has avoided detailed policy discussions, as he always has, but he now has a clear and coherent strategy that substitutes for policy.
This is to build an election platform based on opposition to five developments under the Modi government. They are growing countrywide violence, attacks on basic freedoms, a lack of concern for minorities and the weak, the imposition of “a very rigid, hate-filled angry ideology” and attempts to “capture and destroy” institutions
Gandhi offers a return to the traditional all-embracing freedoms and respect for institutions that Congress has always stood for. He advocates decentralization of government down to the villages as he has for years, though what sounded earlier like a political novice’s well-meaning dream now has substance and relevance because of the way that Modi has centralized all government control in his prime minister’s office.
This overview has emerged from three interactive sessions that I attended while Gandhi has been in London on his first working visit to the UK since becoming Congress Party president. The sessions each lasted about an hour and were live-streamed on twitter and elsewhere. Held at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), the London School of Economics (LSE), and an Indian community lunch meeting organized by the Indian Journalists Association (click on the links for full length videos), they have enabled Gandhi to pull together lines of attack on the government that he has been developing in recent months. Before London, he spent two days in Berlin and Hamburg.
Contrasting his openness with Modi’s refusal to face questioning, Gandhi said at the journalists’ association session, “Come at me with whatever questions you like and then judge…the prime minister of India has never done this.” Being open to any questions, live-streaming, was “a risk,” he said, but if he made mistakes, he would correct them next time.
Gandhi stresses that lack of jobs is India’s biggest crisis and, on that, he does move into policy. Congress would boost agriculture and improve technology and focus on helping small and medium sized firms and extending transport infrastructure. Improved education was also needed – “you can’t have a country with world-class education systems and everything below them is a disaster.”
He said that Congress wanted to open its doors, which had been closed too much, and work with all opposition parties. The BJP would lose the election that is due by April next year if the parties worked together, as they have begun to do. They had agreed that decisions on a prime ministerial candidate would be deferred till after the election.
“On one side there is the BJP and on the other side, there is every opposition party. The reason is, for the first time, Indian institutions are under attack,” said Gandhi. “The RSS (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an Indian right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization umbrella organization for the BJP) is trying to change the nature of India.” Institutions were being “torn down one by one,” and the fight was against “something that is trying to destroy the idea of India”.
Stepping up an attack that he began in Germany on the RSS, he added: “Other parties haven’t tried to capture India’s institutions. The RSS’s idea is similar to the idea of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world that one ideology runs every institution….one idea should crush all other ideas”.
That brought a sharp rebuff from the BJP in Delhi because the Muslim Brotherhood is an extreme Sunni Muslim organization, banned in some Arab countries for alleged terrorist links. A BJP spokesman implicitly criticized Gandhi for breaking the diplomatic convention that politicians do not criticize their country and their opponents when abroad. “Instead of being a proud Indian leader in foreign countries, the Congress president has been attempting to insult and belittle India abroad,” he said.
The Muslim Brotherhood barb had clearly struck home because the spokesman unusually clubbed the RSS and BJP together and said, “India is asking you ‘is some terrorist organization ruling India?’ It is a democratically elected government. Is this government, is this choice of people of India for a terror organization?”.
Gandhi undoubtedly knew what he was doing by trying to sharpen a negative image of the RSS, and today replied to the BJP criticisms. Both organizations, he said, “viewed the electoral process as a means of capturing institutions,” both had been banned in the past and neither of them allowed women to be members.
Attacking the 2016 demonetization of bank notes, which caused extensive economic harm, especially for small businesses, he said the idea “came directly from RSS, bypassed the Finance Minister and RBI (India’s central bank), and was planted in the Prime Minister’s head.” That enabled him to combine an attack on the RSS with criticism of Modi’s centralization of power. He later extended this to the external affairs ministry which, he said, had no independence. “The PM knows his mind,” he had been told by ministry officials to avoid answering questions.
What had he learned in 2014?
At the IISS meeting, I asked Gandhi what he had learned from Congress’s defeat in 2014. He was silent for almost 10 seconds before he answered (most of his other answers were immediate). Eventually he said, “You have to listen, leadership is about listening, about empathy to the person who is speaking, whether you agree with them or not – that’s at a personal level.”
At the party level, there was “a certain degree of arrogance that had crept into the Congress Party after 10 years in power.” Congress should be open to other parties and “build a bridge between them.”
He returned to the theme at the LSE and said that the party had “run into trouble in 2014 because of an internal fight between the older and younger sections” when it had tried to merge “the future and the past.”
Congress was not as good as the BJP at working out its “narrative.” The BJP and RSS messages were clear but, while the Congress originally had Mahatma Gandhi and other independence leaders to put forward the theme, it had not been developed.
The idea of Congress, which needed to be heard, was that “when you see a strong person beating up a small person, you feel a sense of protection, that’s the Congress.” The “weakness is that (Congress) is not able to say, ‘that idea is us.’”
At the journalists’ meeting he said, “my ideology is respecting all points of view,” even if he violently disagreed the person he was meeting.
During the IISS meeting, Gandhi talked about foreign policy. There was however some disappointment among analysts that he did not use the visit to a leading international policy institute to deliver a prepared speech on defense and foreign affairs that could have been seen as a definitive statement on key issues.
Recognizing reality, he said that India should have relationships with China as well as the US. Inevitably he felt “more comfortable with democratic structures” of the US and Europe but, as a Nakamura, China could not be ignored. India should “play a balancing role” between them bringing in, he said at a later session, a new approach to what was the “foundation of a potential conflict.”
“The opportunity is there. There is an Indian way of doing things that is completely different to the Chinese way or the America way….we have our own ideas that are old, tested by non-violence and listening….we specialize in reducing confrontation.” He did not spell out how such an idyllic idea would work in practice.
Mocking Modi’s style of greeting foreign leaders, Gandhi said, “You can’t run a foreign policy based on hugs.”. The prime minister’s “’episodic” approach meant that the ten-week standoff with China on the Himalayan plateau of Doklam earlier this year had been treated as “an event” rather than as a process, so the government had failed to stop it happening. The inference was that Modi’s lack of continuity on relations with China had allowed the crisis to develop.
On the lack of employment opportunities, he criticized the government for only creating 450 jobs in the formal economy every 24 hours compared with 50,000 achieved by China. While he was in Germany, he made a direct link between unemployment and gang violence and killings, and conversion to terrorism. “If one does not give vision to people, someone else is going to give that. It’s important that we involve people and carry people and that people feel they are part of nation building,” he said.
These visits to Germany and the UK were the latest of an international series organized by the Indian Overseas Congress that have earlier taken him to the US, Malaysia and Singapore. His passion to drive the BJP out of power and pursue Modi at every opportunity impressed audiences. He will have succeeded in boosting the work of Congress organizations and, more generally, making it clear that Modi is not India’s only political leader.
Next time – if there is one before the general election – he will need to prepare himself with more policy details in order to show that he has the focus needed to be a prime minister.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.