- In a discussion with Indian Americans in Silicon Valley, the Congress leader expressed confidence that people can be mobilized against the BJP’s misrule and cited his party’s win in the Karnataka elections as evidence.
Rahul Gandhi did not wear a Burberry T-shirt when he came to an event in Silicon Valley on Tuesday, but he talked a lot about it. He was instead wearing his customary white kurta, a black sleeveless waistcoat and loose-fit white trousers. An impressive crowd — impressive because it was a working-day afternoon — of nearly 300 Indian Americans enthusiastically greeted him at a discussion hosted by The Center for South Asian Studies at UC Santa Cruz, on the first leg of his U.S. tour.
During the course of a free-wheeling discussion with the audience, Gandhi alluded to the frenzied media coverage of the controversy generated by the BJP about the pricey T-shirt he was wearing through his months-long walkathon, Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March), last year. He accused the BJP — which, apparently surprised at the success of his march — of trying every which way to discredit him, including orchestrating the fake outrage over his T-shirt in an attempt to caricature him as an elitist.
Gandhi went on to explain how he got to wear that outfit — when he was greeted by five children, who were shivering in the winter chill as they had no warm clothes on. That’s when he decided to stick with his T-shirt till he could no longer bear it — perhaps, in symbolic solidarity with impoverished India. Previous Indian media reports, however, quoted Gandhi recalling the same episode with “three poor girl children,” not five kids. But, no one at the discussion was counting.
The supportive audience consisted mainly of academics, Silicon Valley professionals and entrepreneurs, including some influential philanthropists like Kamil and Talat Hasan, Anuradha Luther Maitra, and Arjun Malhotra. Understandably, Gandhi did not see the need to preach to the choir. He did, however, conversationally make some points that resonated with those present — particularly about the precarious state of India’s democracy under an authoritarian BJP government which he accused of dismantling democratic institutions. He was equally critical of the compliant Indian media, which he saw as also complicit in undermining the constitution — if democratic institutions are destroyed, the constitution is but a piece of paper, Gandhi said to applause.
Describing himself as a political entrepreneur, and not a politician, Gandhi sounded optimistic about defeating the BJP government. He did not see Narendra Modi as some invincible force, but merely as a negative force that is destroying the country. His optimism is based on what he learned about India and its people during his march — the discourse in the country, according to him, was different from what the ruling government is projecting through its diversionary tactics.
His epiphany seems to be the result of “picking up the language of the people” during the long march. The yatra showed that people can be mobilized against the seemingly powerful forces, Gandhi alluded and cited the results of the recent elections in Karnataka in which his Congress party registered an emphatic win. He unhesitatingly attributed that success to his march, even if political pundits in India didn’t see it as a conclusive factor.
Gandhi, however, was under no illusion that Modi can be dethroned by Congress alone. He said it can be accomplished only through “alignment” of the opposition parties, even as he ignored his party’s own reluctance to forge alliances that called for more accommodation on its part. He was quite eloquent when he said the opposition alliance cannot be just for the sake of acquiring power or defeating Modi — whom he never mentioned by name. It had to be about providing an alternate model of politics and development.
However, when Kamil Hassan, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist, asked a pointed and pertinent question if he would be willing to step aside from seeking the leadership of the opposition coalition (a prime ministerial candidate) if that were indeed the condition of a credible coalition formation, Gandhi was evasive. He said such decisions are made by the party president. Although there was no way of gauging if the audience, keen as it is to be rid of the BJP, was disappointed by the answer, surely it knows that the current Congress president is a mere figurehead.
Gandhi comes across, neither as an astute politician nor a political entrepreneur. He looks and sounds like a reluctant heir to a family inheritance of a mantle that has been stripped of all its grandeur. He is not a rhetorician, he is not polemical — like his nemesis, Narendra Modi, who is “a sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity,” to quote Benjamin Disreali’s description of rival William Gladstone.
Gandhi’s appeal, if any, could be his authenticity. It is easy to believe when he says BJP cannot be defeated by reciprocating in kind. For him, hate for hate won’t work. Force against force doesn’t cut it. He learned that from personal tragedy. For instance, he said he harbors no hatred for his father’s killers drawing a political parallel with his personal predicament. Similarly, he is unconcerned by the venom and vitriol of his detractors. He says he confronts hate with his power of truth and love. It might sound corny from a distance, but hearing him say it sounds authentic, even practical.