When Rahul Gandhi speaks on home ground, his words tend to be drowned by a cacophony of derision on social media, often sparked off by an unintended faux pas on his part. But away from the bilious hatred, the Congress Vice President seemed to have found a fresh voice — and enough courage to admit his own mistakes and the failings of his party over the last five years.
Currently on a study tour in the US, ahead of the 2019 general elections, Gandhi spoke today as part of a panel at the University of California in Berkeley. Expectedly, he came down hard on the ruling Narendra Modi dispensation, but also engaged in serious introspection, articulating a few not-so-pleasant truths about the current state of the Congress in India.
It's unbecoming of a mature politician worth their salt to spew unthinking venom at the Opposition, though remaining silent and unseeing of the latter's shortcomings aren't laudable either.
Gandhi took apart the myriad failings of the current government at the Centre, while bookending his list of accusations with the admission that Modi is as much his prime minister as of anyone else's. He didn't spare the trolls on social media who spend their days attacking him though.
As Congress MP Shashi Tharoor reported from the spot, Gandhi said, "There's a BJP machine, 1000 guys with computers, to abuse me, tell you I'm reluctant, I'm stupid. Here I am. Listen to me. Judge for yourself."
"It's a tremendous machine," he added, referring the the BJP's online army, "all day they spread abuse about me, and the operation is run by the gentleman who is running our country."
That's as blunt as it gets.
He called out the failure of demonetisation, which has led to a drop in the growth rate by 2 percentage points in the current quarter. With regard to the goods and services tax, he was scathingly critical too about its implementation and effect on the economy. All valid concerns, borne out by scores of news reports affirming his claims.
Gandhi also lashed out at Modi for his inability to protect human rights, manifested in a series of killing of innocent citizens on the suspicion of being cow slaughterers or smugglers. He underscored the fact that the most obvious victims of such crimes are Dalits, Muslims and others belonging to minority communities.
Gandhi described the rise "violence, anger and the politics of polarisation" as a development "that is new to the country". That's a debatable statement, depending from the political spectrum you're looking at India's history from.
As a member of the audience reminded Gandhi, the Congress continues to protect politicians like Jagdish Tytler and Kamal Nath, accused of leading the mobs who unleashed atrocities hundreds of Sikh people in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Gandhi's grandmother, in 1984. That remark went unaddressed by Gandhi, although he did vouch an unequivocal love for the community that was so brutally attacked by members and workers of his own party.
"Indira Gandhi's bodyguards, who shot her 32 times, were my friends. I used to play badminton with them. So, on one day, I saw my grandmother shot and my friends shot. Violence against anybody is wrong, and I condemn it," he said. "I absolutely love the [Sikh] community. If there's anything I can do to help them get justice, I'll be the first person to do so."
During a TV interview in 2014, Gandhi had pointedly avoided apologising for the anti-Sikh pogrom in which more than a few of his party's politicians were involved. He later went on to offer a wishy-washy defence, probably more out of an interest in controlling the damage than out of genuine remorse.
Since Gandhi has broken his silence on several crucial drawbacks of the Congress culture, now is perhaps the time to take palpable actions to bring justice to the victims of those riots. That first step could begin with condemning those within his party, who were indicted in the massacres.
Dynasty? So what?
You have to give it to Gandhi for mustering the courage to that he lacks the current PM's charisma. "He's a very good communicator, probably much better than me," Gandhi said about Modi. "He understands how to deliver a message to three or four groups in a crowd; his messaging ability is very subtle."
Truer words were seldom spoken. But Gandhi's plain speaking, as he went on to establish, wasn't merely a concession of defeat. His admission was crowned by a twist in the tale: he hoped PM Modi would apply such gift of communication while interacting with his colleagues too. "What I sense is that he does not converse with the people he works with; even members of Parliament and BJP tell me that," Gandhi said. A member of parliament from Maharashtra recently said as much, if you want an unbiased ratification of this remark.
When it came to answering questions related to his advantages in politics, especially as the torchbearer of a hallowed "dynasty", Gandhi wasn't as assured though.
"Most of the country runs like this, so don't go after me, Akhilesh Yadav a dynast, Mr Stalin a dynast, Mr (Prem Kumar) Dhumal's son a dynast, so don't just go after me ... Even Mr.Abhishek Bachchan is a dynast, also Mr Ambani, that's how entire country is running," he said.
As far as bitter pills go, some are harder to swallow than others. Simply because a problematic tradition of nepotism has lasted decades, it shouldn't be turned into a virtue out of necessity.
The Way Forward
Whatever politicians and the public back home make of him, Gandhi seemed convinced about his readiness to take on the mantle of Congress President, though such a role, he said, won't be bestowed on him simply because of his standing without consensus from across his party.
Sadly, it has taken Gandhi three years into the ruling government's current regime to reach such a stage of clarity. He had repeatedly failed to capitalise on the myriad failures of the Centre's policies and turn them into moments of opportunity by suggesting concrete actions. It's well and good to rage against the copy-cat Chinese model of employment that the Modi government seems to be fixed on when it comes to labour, but to take it beyond empty rhetoric requires more than imagination.
It needs vision, focus, determination, integrity and political experience to deliver good on promises made to the people. By taking a hard look at himself and his organisation, Gandhi has started a journey that can hopefully salvage both in the eye of the electorate in 2019.
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