Encountering Rahul Gandhi at Berkeley

Rahul began with a speech that was quite obviously stitched together by his economic and political advisers

Shahzaib Khan September 15, 2017
The writer is a lawyer currently at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets @shahzaibkhan901

The tension in the air is palpable. Over Rahul Gandhi’s now prolonged and somewhat self-defeating lecture about Modi-nomics, the faint sounds of Sikhs bellowing insults and protests flood in from the other side of the walls. A group of mostly Sikhs, now living in the US, are protesting his well-attended talk on “India at 70” at the International House in Berkeley, California. The crowd outside the almost century-old International House is protesting Operation Blue Star, an operation conducted against Sikh militants by the Indian government under the rule of Rahul’s grandmother Indira Gandhi. The operation led to communal riots which killed thousands across Punjab, mostly Sikh, and also led to the death of Mrs Gandhi. On the road outside the auditorium, a Sikh man claims that most of his family was burnt alive when the riots took place in 1984. He blames Rahul for not taking action against the culprits, who he says are still part of Congress.

India’s considerable growth as an economic and regional power was for all to see as the crowd assembled to listen to Rahul. Indians, who made up most of the audience, wore a sense of pride on their sleeves, contentment across their faces, a glint in their eyes, as Rahul talked about how there was no democratic country other than India that has raised so many people out of poverty “without violence.” But something troubled the Indian audience, just as it had evidently troubled the speaker.

Rahul began with a speech that was quite obviously stitched together by his economic and political advisers. A speech that emphasised that India was on a one-way path to greatness, that turning back was not an option, that destiny was within reach. He cited it all, the IITs, the economic development, the poverty alleviation, etc. Abruptly, however, as if he was caught off guard by something unfamiliar in the piece of paper he was regularly reading from, Rahul took a breath and proceeded to outline, how the “great Indian age of progress,” would be undone.

“Hatred and violence” is what Rahul said would undo what he had previously claimed to be the unstoppable rise of India as a great power. By now a few phones were visible across the rows, but suddenly, the vice president of perhaps the most prolific Indian political party had raised the possibility of the Indian wheel of progress facing an abrupt stop, even reversal. The phones disappeared, the crowd leaned in and Rahul had the floor again. Muslims being killed was a new phenomenon in India claimed the Harvard and Cambridge educated, 47-year-old who is now one of the few remaining glimmers of hope for relatively liberal Indians in the era of Modi.

This was my first time seeing Rahul speak live. He dove into the “hatred and violence” that was creeping into a previously relatively secular Indian nation. He spoke about how the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, represented a view that threatened not just the economic progress of India, but the social fabric of the multinational nation itself. For the first time in the talk, I felt inclined to anticipate Rahul’s words. Suddenly he had the fire of a “liberal” as he had described himself during the introductory speech. I leaned in along with the crowd as an auditorium full of people looked to the heir of the Nehru dynasty for an answer to Modi’s rule of hate and violence.

Ten seconds later it was all over. Rahul had returned to his rhetoric of economic progress, technological advancements and general sales tax policies. Later, in reply to a question about the left in India, he would reply that the idea of left and right doesn’t work in India, and that in pursuit of development the Congress must not be bound by ideology. He proceeded to explain how his image was being tarnished by a “thousand” internet users working under the man “running India” himself. A potential candidate for the prime minister in 2019, Rahul explained how this troll army and the troll-in-charge tell you “I’m stupid.”

It only got worse from there. In reply to a question about dynastic politics, Rahul quite unwittingly, drew a comparison to Abhishek Bacchhan’s dynastic origin, proceeding to state that dynastic politics was how the country was run and that’s what happens in India, implying that dynastic politics was irrelevant as long as the person was “capable.”

Rahul may be an accomplished scholar, he may be a sage administrator, he is definitely from a priviledged background, and for the most part, at least apparently, he seemed to genuinely worried about India’s minorities and its threatened secular status. However, what Rahul is not, seemingly, is competition for Modi.

Modi continues to sweep record crowds across India. State after state falls into the clutches of BJP as Modi’s extreme-right wing brand of particularly divisive politics brings together a huge electorate, albeit in the name of hate. Modi has unleashed a wave of divisiveness which, Rahul quite rightly claimed, will consume India and decimate its progress. Most Indians worried by the BJP, and perhaps Rahul himself see the 47-year-old as the leading prospective challenger to Modi and his politics of hate. What is worrying is that, seemingly Rahul is not up to the task. It is worrying for me, as a Pakistani, and for the world, but mostly for those Indians who do not subscribe to Modi’s totalitarian and majoritarian rule.

And so, Rahul is important. He represents, at least to the Indian audience here, one of the few remaining significant barriers between the BJP and its dream of a fundamentalist India with no place for minorities. He represents hope for those Indians that subscribe to a relatively secular India with protection for minorities, and so he is important. But that is not enough. Rahul speaks with an unsound arrogance, an uncomfortable sense of artificial relaxation. He speaks with utilitarian vagueness, unbounded optimism and an infructuous rhetoric that is characteristic of a typical politician. Most importantly, however, he speaks not with the fervour of an ideologically driven opposition leader, but with the sound caution of a compromising technocrat. He feels distant, incoherent, uninspired.

I put a question on a paper about Rahul’s policy regarding Kashmir. To my luck, the question was read out by the respectable moderator to Mr Gandhi. He answers by saying that when the Congress started its tenure militancy was rampant, but by 2013 militancy had virtually been eradicated in Kashmir. The crowd lunges on to a straw of hope as it is drowning in a sea of technocratic economic rhetoric, the crowd hopes that Rahul will finally shed light on how the people of Kashmir have been disenfranchised and all they want are political and human rights. “Jobs,” says Rahul, Kashmiris were getting jobs, they were seeking jobs across India, political and economic alternatives were being provided and so militancy receded, he explains. He goes on to state that one of his metrics for determining progress in Kashmir was the “number of commercial flights” coming into Kashmir. He reasoned that the flights indicated growth in tourism and that this in some mysterious way had helped quell the militancy. Nothing yet about political rights, about human rights violations, about political franchise and real democracy. Instead, Rahul shed light on how the BJP came into power, decimated the local Kashmiri parties, which supposedly did not include the Hurriyet and how within 30 days of the Congress having lost the election, Rahul felt that India was losing Kashmir. He missed out on explaining how roughly nine years of peace and progress was reversed in just 30 days.

As the event wrapped up, the Sikh protesters had grown tired, the protest had gone silent. But so had the Indian audience. A peculiar uncertainty had loomed across their faces. The faces told stories of hopes unanswered, of detachment, of confusion and perhaps most significantly, of worry.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2017.

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Kolsat | 4 years ago | Reply I wish to take issues with the author on two of his points. Firstly he calls India a multinational country which it is not. It is multi-religious. Secondly calling Rahul a scholar and an able administrator is untrue. Rahul is neither and that is why he still is only the Vice-President of his party.
Lilly | 4 years ago | Reply This whole assumption that Harvard graduates are liberals is total wrong. Harvard is just a place of study that offers highest quality of education, that doesn't mean that all are liberals there.
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