After his 146-day, 4000-km Bharat Jodo Yatra, one expected Rahul Gandhi’s next steps to be solid, substantive – and new. Maybe laying out his vision for the country for the next 50 years, coming up with solutions to what he sees are key challenges facing today’s young.
Instead, we got another well-worn critique of the BJP government delivered from some stages in the UK. Rahul could have chosen an institution in India, a women’s college in Wayanad? An IIM? IIT? A university near Delhi? After all, Narendra Modi announced himself to India from the Shri Ram College of Commerce in 2013.
Of course, Rahul has the right to choose any platform to express his opinion but more of that later.
It is obvious that the Congress wants to keep him relevant before the world community as Narendra Modi’s main adversary, wants to project Rahul as the leader of the entire Opposition — though Mallikarjun Kharge let it be known that the leadership issue will be settled only after the 2024 elections. Other non-BJP parties have chosen to say little about Rahul’s UK comments.
Rahul’s remarks on the erosion of democracy in India aren’t new. Nor is his concern about growing “mehngai” or rising unemployment — concerns shared by many. But he was on a sticky wicket when he charged Western democracies of being “oblivious” to the democratic backslide in India and, in effect, sought their help.
Such an appeal, even if it was to score only an intellectual point, does not behove the leader of a confident nation. Seeking foreign interference in the internal affairs of the country is tricky rhetoric.
For, it underlines his own helplessness and, ironically, erodes all that he had gained during the Yatra – that he had generated some groundswell and was ready to take the gloves off.
Surely, Rahul cannot be unmindful of the fact that national pride is a pivot of the BJP narrative — one that has many takers today. On its part, the BJP charged Rahul with defaming India while on foreign soil.
A criticism rather flimsy given that Rahul has the right to speak freely in India, how that right can be taken away when he goes abroad? By questioning Rahul’s right to criticize when abroad, the BJP undermines its own claim that India remains a vibrant democracy. More so, when India’s hosting the G20, when countries call out each other on “foreign soil.” But the problem is not just with what Rahul said. It’s also with what he did not say.
Talk to the person on the street and there is a positivity about Rahul Gandhi after the yatra. People tell you, “Acha kar rahen hain.” But they also tell you they are waiting and watching — and assessing — how he takes the fight to the next stage. “Abhi poora bharosa nahin hai.” For that reason, Rahul’s post-Yatra steps are watched with greater interest today than they would normally be.
This became clear as I talked to a range of people, a furniture shop owner, a tea vendor, labourers from UP and Bihar, employees in a vegetable shop and a Haryana farmer.
Said a tea-shop owner: “I have been a Congress supporter, ever since I can
Remember…par kuch toh kami hai Congress mein, kar ke toh dikhayen na, chunav jeet ke dikhayen”. (there’s something missing in the Congress, let them show they mean business, let them win an election.) A retired IB official summed up the situation: “The Cambridge speech may be impressive but will it help him in 2024? Those praising his UK speeches are anyways diehard anti-BJP voters, part of the old elite. Is there any moderate BJP voter with whom his speech has resonated to the extent that his yatra did?”
That’s the key issue. Forget for a moment the hardcore Congress vote which, in 2019, hit 19.5%, or the hardcore BJP voter who remains committed to the saffron party. Is Rahul
Gandhi able to wean away the moderate, fence-sitting BJP voter? What narrative that will make this happen? Before leaving for UK, did he ask Kharge to join him, did he call the president and the top leadership team and work out with them what to tell audiences in UK at this point?
Many in the party wanted Rahul to spell out how the Yatra had given him hope for the future of India, and how he plans to give shape to his idea for an India where progress doesn’t mean social division.
But he is framing his message in dire tones: democracy dead, all institutions captured, GDP slumping, everyone sold out, joblessness, hunger on the rise. Does he think this will enthuse, galvanise the aspirational India? A young country needs to be shown the light, not just the darkness. His advisers should pull out the key quotes of his speeches in 2014 and 2019 and show why his despair politics has not resonated in election after election.
Surprisingly, few in the UK asked him: If you believe India’s headed on the wrong track and you know what’s wrong with India, why haven’t you been able to make this case to the voter? Why are you losing election after election? Ultimately, Rahul Gandhi will have to address that question to himself – no political philosophy PPT will do.
(Neerja Chowdhury, Contributing Editor, The Indian Express, has covered the last 10 Lok Sabha elections)