“Thank you for this unscripted Mann Ki Baat!”, a delighted person in the audience shouted with a great amount of fervour. This final intervention may well have been the cry of an ardent supporter, but there was nothing principally wrong in whatever he expressed. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress President and a possible contender for the coveted office of the Prime Minister of India in the future, has been on a spree of visits to foreign destinations where he has been interacting with different sections of the society. His visit to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) thus, generated a considerable amount of buzz. For, despite being in politics since 2004, there is very little that Indians know about Rahul Gandhi compared to many other politicians. As he was neither a minister in the successive United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governments nor was he put forth as a face of the party in the 2014 General Elections, public perception of Rahul has been quite discouraging to say the least. What added to his troubles was the emergence of Narendra Modi as an accomplished orator. Furthermore, his sustained ‘disappearance’ from the political arena for almost two crucial months in 2015 set the rumour mills abuzz. It is this mystery and intrigue about Rahul’s persona which the Congress has been trying to use to its advantage in the last few months.
Organised by LSE South Asia Centre and the National Indian Students and Alumni Union (NISAU), ‘In Conversation with Rahul Gandhi’ was touted as the inaugural event of the India Townhall series. After the formal round of welcome by the organizers, Rahul initiated the dialogue by apologising for the delay in his arrival. He emphasised on the idea that while we could disagree with someone, hatred is not a prerequisite. Moreover, he urged people to look at things from the perspective of others as it can be very valuable. According to him, India’s strength lies in non-violent ideas and thus, the country has a huge role to play in the global context. At this juncture, Dr Mukulika Banerjee, the Director of LSE South Asia Centre commenced her role as the interviewer. There were ten questions in total focusing on a range of issues including what he brings to the table apart from his family name, views on secularism, social justice and economic situation, implementation of Swaminathan report, SWOT analysis of the party, 1984 and so forth.
On his contribution, he stated that he had seen violence in life and thus, knew the importance of reaching out and listening to people. Acknowledging that he had to borne the brunt of massive attacks, he maintained that fifteen years in politics is serious experience. He strongly asserted that he loves India and stands for the weaker sections of the society. On social justice, he emphasised that people should not be divided, but it is important that the shackles of caste are broken, there is increased participation of women and that the voice of the people guides the functioning of institutions. Regarding economics, Rahul primarily concentrated only on agriculture. Emphasising that even the average farmer can take on agriculture policy experts, he lambasted the government for its inability to produce jobs and instead, harping on divisive issues. Advocating focus on small and medium scale, low cost housing, infrastructure as the solution, he implored upon the government to acknowledge the problem in the first place. Government should act as an enabler as per his hypothesis. With reference to the implementation of the Swaminathan Report, he admonished the Government for the lack of intent in improving lives of farmers and promised to deliver on this front. While he hit the right notes on all these points, there were some inherent contradictions. For instance, a Congress Spokesperson’s categorical assertion during the recent Gujarat Assembly Elections campaign about Rahul’s higher caste status, lack of representation of women in important committees of his party and the failure of UPA to effectively act on the recommendations of the Swaminathan Report are realities that cannot be washed away.
It was interesting that he did not respond initially to the question on his views about secularism and it had to be reiterated again. The answer was a bit ambiguous as well, only stating that no person should be rendered voiceless. By not directly bringing in either Hinduism or Islam, it was possibly a bid to not give any opportunity to the BJP for criticism. According to Rahul, the next election was a direct fight between BJP on one side and the entire opposition on the other. The latter was fighting against the attack on Indian institutions and inclusive idea of India, reflected by incidents like the press conference of the Supreme Court judges and sacking of journalists. Responding to a query on the SWOT analysis of the Congress party, he made some key observations. The strength of the Congress was its decentralised structure and the embedded idea of non-violence as against top-to-bottom hierarchy of the RSS, while the weakness lay in the fact that the party was not able to communicate that idea properly. As the Congress had closed itself over a period, it has the opportunity of bringing in millions of Indians and delivering a robust organization. Also, he had no hesitation in admitting that arrogance was the biggest threat to the party. Confessing that the internal fights between the old and the new guard cost them in the 2014 General Elections, he reiterated the need to involve more young people in the organization.
Now, it was the time for the infamous 1984 question. Earlier in the day, he had stoked a controversy by denying the role of his party in the anti-Sikh riots. However, he had a slightly different take in this event. Stating that Dr Manmohan Singh had spoken for the entire Congress, he condemned it and supported punishment for the perpetrators. Reverting to his understanding of violence, he revealed that he even felt sorry for the humiliation of Prabhakaran, his father’s killer. Thereafter, he maintained that there was no question of Congress being a party to any communal incident under his tenure as Congress President. Thus, he once again invoked his personal tragedy and cleverly sidestepped the justice denied to the victims for so many decades. The last question by Dr Banerjee pertained to the criteria for the Prime Minister’s job in the opposition coalition. As per Rahul, the priority of the opposition was to defeat the BJP and other deliberations would commence only post elections. Also, he added that Congress would form an alliance only with those parties ideologically opposed to the BJP. Hence, this implies that the Congress is open for a wider discussion on the PM’s name and ready to compromise. These comments can also be a rebuff to a party like Shiv Sena, that currently opposes BJP but is very close to their ideological position on many issues.
Subsequently, the floor was opened for questions from the audience. First, he was asked about his excessive focus on agriculture to which he replied that it is linked to other sectors of the economy and thus, nothing can be viewed in isolation. A question hovering around dynasty and politics in India was met with a short response highlighting that political affiliation does help, but that he was a three-time elected member of parliament with people reposing faith in him. Regarding parliament, he openly spoke about how rudderless the House had become with law making powers concentrated only in the hands of the PM and the ministers and promised to empower the MPs. While most of the audience appreciated this in unison, Rahul not only did not elaborate on the proposed changes but was conveniently silent on his own poor record in Parliament also- ranging from his attendance to lack of participation in the legislation process. Afterwards, he candidly admitted that he was occasionally wrong in his judgement and that the Congress is always ready to support the Government on legislations like GST and the Women’s Reservation Bill. Briefly addressing corruption, he reinforced belief in Right to Information, Lokpal and decentralization as tools to tackle this menace. Next, the Rafale deal was criticised and linked to corruption. Lastly, a student questioned about the possibility of a female PM to which he responded that while he was not a clairvoyant, he assured that more women leaders would be inducted at every level of the organization.
The session came to an end due to paucity of time. It is a pity that many questions remained unanswered. For instance, I had a very pertinent question about the decision of the Punjab government (ruled by the Congress) to amend the provisions of the Indian Penal Code paving way for a stringent Blasphemy law, that has no place in modern India. His answer would have effectively reflected whether he and his party really stand for the principles that he espoused in his talk. Most of the questions allowed him a certain degree of leeway to talk in general terms rather than specifics. However, there are key aspects that were clearly visible. While elementary vetting of attendee names must have taken place, there was not any complaint of anyone being denied a ticket. Furthermore, one had the liberty to ask any question without any pre-screening. Hence while the recent big-ticket events of Modi have been criticised for failing on these grounds, Rahul’s team certainly scored a point.
In terms of the political ramifications, this seems to be one of the many such endeavours in the run up to the next General Elections. Every effort is being made to project Rahul as the victim who has endured personal attacks with a smile, someone who makes mistakes but is willing to learn, a person who expresses himself on most issues of critical importance and is firmly against hate politics. This is in stark contrast to the attitude of the Modi government which often relies on aggression as the best form of defence and is perceived to be ignorant to some of the grievances of the people. While the BJP is still poised to be the single largest party in 2019, underestimating Rahul and the Congress can prove to be a costly mistake as the latter have signalled the intent of forming the government stitching a formidable coalition. On their part, the Congress has a tough challenge in tackling the personal charisma of Modi, which is still intact. Thus, whether the re-branded image of Rahul can convince the voters will be fascinating to watch out for in the upcoming elections.