Rahul Gandhi stirs the pot with Berkeley speech

Last Updated: Fri, Sep 15, 2017 13:28 hrs
Rahul Gandhi in US

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi speaking at an event at the University of California Berkeley said the idea of non violence is being threatened in India. Perhaps speaking to some of the recent events this year – targeting of Muslims for eating beef, murder of journalists who oppose a right wing agenda; he said, “Hatred, anger and violence can destroy us. The politics of polarization is dangerous”.

An opportune time if any at present to speak out for the ‘will he be or won’t he be’ leader of the Congress. Economically, the previous two quarters showed that growth rates had fallen, retail inflation was high, some questions about demonetization and events that questioned the notion of free speech under the current government.

In an op-ed for the Deccan Chronicle, S.V. Ramani, the secretary of the All India Congress Committee communications department not surprisingly praised the speech in which lies and facts unfurled by the Modi needed to be stated. He states that Rahul put things in perspective regarding historical truths and achievements of past governments, ending with –

“It is the inner angst of a statesman who loves his motherland immensely and who is terrified of the future history of this country being written as “an opportunity lost”.

Countering the sentiments of AICC in the same op-ed, Rakesh Sinha, an associate professor, University of Delhi, and director of the India Policy Foundation sharply criticized the setting and tone of the speech and states that Rahul Gandhi painted a dark portrait of India –

“The healthy tradition of not engaging foreigners in our domestic affairs has been shattered with Rahul Gandhi’s address to students at the University of California, where he presented a dark picture of the nation, of the democratically-elected government and of civil society”.

“Had the same speech critical of the Narendra Modi government been made by an Opposition leader in Parliament or anywhere within the country, it would have seemed entirely natural. But he chose to speak on foreign soil, to a largely foreign audience, criticizing Mr. Modi, India’s foreign policy and on other issues, including demonetization and democracy”.

“Our ideals or perspective haven’t changed. Mr. Gandhi has painted a dark picture of our democracy and this won’t be easily forgiven by Indians”.

Journalist Jiby J Kattakayam in a column for The Times of India, stated that there are still questions that remain about his leadership skills –

“Rahul’s responses on political violence, dealing with personal tragedies, and equanimity towards material possessions like the latest gadgets reveal a sober politician who has his heart in the right place. But there is no sign that Rahul is ready for the job of rebuilding the Congress”.

“The party is still not being able to attract young people into its fold despite Rahul’s best attempts. In dismay, he has gone back to the old guard after failing to dislodge them from key party posts and parliamentary responsibilities.”

The main take away from the speech seems to be on dynasty politics. He, himself a 5th generation politician, gave examples of Akhilesh Yadav and Anurag Thakur. An argument can be made for speaking about the capability and effectiveness in winning elections and governing, but his party could use that pep talk.

Optics wise, Shailaja Bajpai in a column for the Indian Express writes on his speech at UCB –

“The PM combines rhetoric with pithy catchphrases; Rahul relies on a bashful boyishness, engaging in coffee table “conversations”, inadequate at the high table of governance”.

“His interaction at Berkeley on Tuesday lacked powerful, meaningful messaging so necessary in these contentious and media cluttered times. And, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proved, if you aren’t particularly charismatic, you must be solid and substantive.”

His answer about dynasty politics seems a little different to the one he gave in a 2014 interview where he said, “The real issue is that I didn't choose to be born in this family, I didn't sign up and say that I like to be born in this family. It happened, so the choice in front of me is pretty simple. I am absolutely against the concept of a dynasty; anybody who knows me knows that and understands that. But you are not going to wish away Dynasty in a closed system; you have to open the system”.

Last week, journalist Javed Ansari in an op-ed for News18, stated that this being a crucial time for the Congress, the party’s Vice President would be better served if he leads from the front –

“At a time when Congress party is facing two crucial elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat and when the government should be made to answer some tough questions on demonetization, the Congress’s interests would be better served if its Vice-President leads from the front, rather than delivering and attending lectures abroad.”

“However, Congress’ inability to set its house in order and to mount a campaign against the sitting chief ministers threatens to nullify the advantage that could have come its way on account of the failings of the state government”.

“Rahul is expected to formally take charge and become Congress president at some point later this year. That notwithstanding, most of the major decisions are routed through him.”

“India’s Grand Old Party faces an existentialist crisis. Rahul Gandhi needs to realize that the battle for ‘who governs the country’ for the next five years will be decided in the dust bowls of India and not in Berkeley and Silicon Valley”.

This trip can be seen as his way of doing the hard sell to perhaps the Indian community and business leaders; who Modi seems to have an upper hand on; who live abroad. If and or when he takes charge of the party, all eyes will be on him; creating a vision, plan and executing it – he will have a lot on his plate. A vision that isn’t necessarily only anti BJP but has to be pro Congress.

The “dynasty” remark has caught the headlines. The BJP through I&B Minister Smriti Irani quickly fired with a “Rahul Gandhi was a failed dynast who chose to speak on his failed political journeys in the United States”.

The DNA editorial criticized his appearance at UCB referring to him as Mr.Gaffe stating –

“Rahul is on a two-week study tour of the United States, which is being dubbed by his party as preparation for the general elections in 2019. It does not take a political expert to realize that embarrassing India on an international platform is not a respectable way to win over future voters.”

“Though it purportedly speaks about the entire political milieu in India, Rahul has never been able to carve out a significant political standing of his own without the Congress label”.

He did give a surprisingly candid account of the UPA’s failures saying, “Somewhere around 2012, and I will say this, a certain arrogance crept into the Congress party and they stopped having that conversation (with people)”. Perhaps a play on how he would like the party to approach the next round of elections in 2019.

More columns by Varun Sukumar