In a keenly watched UK tour, which came after the eventful Bharat Jodo Yatra, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has taken on the Narendra Modi government and accused it of assaulting democratic institutions, diluting India’s federal structure, misusing agencies to stifle dissenting viewpoints, and snooping on opposition leaders—accusations that caused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to fume and rush to frame his UK sojourn as a “trash India tour”. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said that Gandhi had “deeply hurt India’s honour and prestige” whereas Modi decried the “constant attempts by some people to attack Indian democracy”.
Even as a large section of the news media bolstered the BJP leaders’ vilification of the Wayanad MP, others found merit in much of his articulations about the increasingly autocratic tendencies of the Modi regime. One such tendency, Gandhi said was the police’s “relatively violent” quelling of democratic protests, including those staged by Parliamentarians.
Rahul Gandhi’s UK tour included closed-door sessions on Big Data and Democracy, and India-China relations at Cambridge University, interactions with representatives of the Indian Overseas Congress UK chapter, and an address to an “Indian Diaspora Conference” in London.
As his lectures progressed, the BJP’s second-rung leaders stepped up caustic attacks on his image and credibility with Union Minister Anurag Thakur remarking, “His language, his thoughts, his style of functioning—everything is suspect.” There are two main facets in the BJP’s arsenal of accusations against the Congress leader: one is that he is defaming India on foreign soil; and the other is that he has sought foreign intervention to fix India’s democracy. Both accusations are aimed at furthering the ruling party’s tried-and-tested model of portraying itself and its leader Narendra Modi as the sole protector of the national interest, something that allows it to steer its election bid around the “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) factor. The continuing salvos on Gandhi—BJP MPs created a ruckus in Parliament demanding an apology from the Congress leader for his London remarks—are also aimed at turning the elections into a Modi versus Rahul duel. This is a battle the opposition does not want because it believes that the next election must be fought on the more pressing issues of unemployment, price rise and other such matters that highlight the weaknesses of the Modi government.
At any rate, to say that Gandhi asked for foreign assistance to help the opposition’s cause in India is a sweeping and misleading inference, partly enabled by his somewhat meandering articulation on the subject. On March 4, Gandhi had said at an event in London that the “surprising thing is that the so-called defenders of democracy, which are the United States, the European countries, seem to just be oblivious that a huge chunk of the democratic model has come undone, which is a real problem… and it’s not just an Indian battle, it’s actually a much more important battle....”
A day later, as a political storm brewed in New Delhi in the aftermath of his remarks, he was more pointed and alert during a discussion at the Chatham House think tank in London. “First of all, it is our problem, it is an internal problem, it’s an Indian problem, and the solution is going to come from inside, it is not going to come from outside. However, the scale of Indian democracy means that democracy in India is a global, public good. It impacts way further than our boundaries. If Indian democracy collapses, in my view, democracy on the planet suffers a very serious, possibly fatal blow… we will deal with our problem, but you must be aware that this problem is going to play out at a global scale.”
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Damage control is just damage control. And Gandhi’s habitual careless utterances that necessitate damage control seriously hinder the Congress’ prospects of recapturing power. An astute politician in the current set-up, where narratives are shaped largely by the BJP’s Internet armies, could have predicted that defining an assault on Indian democracy as a global problem, without the rider that Indians alone are equipped to deal with it, would attract just the kind of reprisal that happened in Gandhi’s case. A clever, defensible framing of one’s opinion is not a choice but an imperative in today’s unforgiving news cycle with its noticeable bias against the opposition.
There is no doubt that the Bharat Jodo Yatra considerably rehabilitated Gandhi’s image, but if he continues with his “at-times muddled articulation”, the yatra’s positives will soon be undone. Frontline had earlier observed of his yatra: “As Rahul Gandhi scouts to recover political ground, his articulation has to be cogent. It is desirable that he speaks in the measured tone of his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who is not a great orator but who sticks to carefully prepared, effective scripts.”
At the same time, it plays to the BJP tune when people focus on Gandhi’s one slip when he raised vital points concerning our democracy and the share of privileges that come from unhindered democracy. In his interactions, Gandhi had underlined the growing attempt to obstruct debate, deliberations and protests in India. He said, “Indian democracy is under pressure, is under attack… what is happening is that the institutional framework which is required for a democracy—Parliament, a free press, the judiciary—just the idea of mobilisation, just the idea of moving around… these are all getting constrained. So, we are facing an attack on the basic structure of Indian democracy.”
In an attack on the RSS on a global stage, Gandhi likened the BJP’s ideological fountainhead with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. “You can call it [RSS] a secret society,” he said. “It is built along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood and the idea is to use the democratic contest to come to power and then subvert the democratic contest afterwards.”
Gandhi also drew attention to the Chinese aggression at the Line of Actual Control, stressing Modi’s inability to contain it and perpetuating a state of deniability. He said, “We have got 2,000 sq km of our territory that is in the hands of the People’s Liberation Army and the Prime Minister himself has stated that nobody has entered India, not a single inch of land has been taken and this destroyed our negotiation position because our negotiators are being asked what’s the fuss about.”
The BJP’s nervousness about Gandhi’s speaking exercises is understandable. Modi’s image as a charismatic global leader who is keenly heard by audiences abroad has been painstakingly built over the past two decades in concert with international think tanks and the Indian diaspora living in the US and Europe, and that image has contributed significantly to his emergence as an unchallenged executive for the Indian electorate. Even as Gandhi is only beginning to connect with global think tanks and Indian groups abroad, the BJP appears to be jittery.
Using the Indian diaspora
Since the mid-2000s, Modi has used the Indian diaspora and global platforms to launch his ascendance across India’s political landscape. In 2005, when Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister was denied a visa by the U.S. State Department to address a convention of the Asian American Hotel Owner Associations in Florida, some influential Indian Americans began to work together to craft an “investor friendly” global image for him. In 2007, Bharat Barai, an assistant professor teaching Medicine at Indiana University’s Medical School, took a significant step in this direction when he organised a video conference for Modi to address the Indian diaspora. That same year, Ramesh Shah, another influential Indian-American, organised a major rally in Houston to celebrate Modi’s re-election as Gujarat’s Chief Minister.
And in December 2013, when Modi was about six months away from becoming India’s Prime Minister, the Overseas Friends of the Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP) conducted get-togethers across the U.S. to celebrate the BJP’s resounding success in three provincial elections. The OFBJP made a significant contribution to raising the global pitch for Modi. In January 2014, the organisation held a global meet in New Delhi with 160 delegates from around the world. Simultaneously in Houston, close to 700 volunteers kicked off a phone campaign, wherein each one of them would make 200 calls to targeted voters in India and sell them on the idea of Modi as the next PM. There are also reports that in March 2014 many Indian Americans who were key donors of former Democratic Party leader Tulsi Gabbard left for India to campaign for the BJP. Among them was Barai, who led a team of 600 volunteers, and one Chandrakant Patel, who headed a campaign staff team of over 1,000 people.
“Even as Gandhi is only beginning to connect with global think tanks and Indian groups abroad, the BJP appears to be jittery.”
These efforts were not limited to pushing Modi as the choice for India’s top job. There appears to also be a structural linkage between white nationalism and Hindutva and perhaps that is why Gandhi chose to define the threat to Indian democracy as not just an Indian problem but a bigger one.
A top headline event that demonstrated the linkage between Hindutva groups and white nationalists took place in October 2016, when Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election was not certain. Titled “Humanity Against Terror”, Trump, then the Republican nominee, addressed a charity concert in New Jersey to raise funds for the Kashmiri Pandits. The fundraiser was the brainchild of the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) that is chaired by Shalab Kumar, an Indian American business tycoon. The RHC, on its website, states that its objective is to promote the interests of Indian Americans with Republican policymakers.
Fighting against extremism
As the economy under Modi faltered, it became expedient for him to coalesce with ideologically proximate world leaders and augment a narrative against Islamist extremism to avoid scrutiny from the electorate. An exercise in that direction was the Namaste Trump rally in Ahmedabad in February 2020, as the COVID-19 wave was setting in. A Howdy, Modi! rally was organised in Houston in September 2019 for the management of optics after Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status was revoked unilaterally by the Union Government on August 5 that year, provoking outrage from several leaders across the world. The words “Shared Dreams, Bright Futures” ornamented a giant screen at Houston’s NRG stadium as 50,000 Indian Americans gathered to welcome Modi and Trump. “Both India and the United States understand that to keep our communities safe, we must protect our borders,” Trump declared at that event, drawing some sort of a common cause that united him and Modi.
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The interplay between white nationalists and Hindutva groups has roots in history. V.D. Savarkar, who outlined Hindutva as an ideology in 1923, was manifestly inspired by European fascists of the time. Much like the European fascists, Savarkar emphasised the purity of race and advocated that the Indian subcontinent ought to be turned into an ethno-state of Hindus that is only for Hindus.
Whether or not Gandhi can succeed in cobbling together a coalition of liberal democratic forces to contain the right-wing’s steady rise or shape a viable prime ministerial candidacy for himself is too early to predict, but there is no doubt that his actions and words have made the BJP restless, as is evident from its renewed zeal to discredit him.
- In the UK, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took on the Narendra Modi Government and accused it of assaulting democratic institutions, diluting India’s federal structure, misusing agencies to stifle dissenting viewpoints, and snooping on opposition leaders—accusations that caused the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to fume and rush to frame his UK sojourn as a “trash India tour”.
- There are two main facets in the BJP’s arsenal of accusations against the Congress leader: one is that he is defaming India on foreign soil; and the other is that he has sought foreign intervention to fix India’s democracy.
- Gandhi’s habitual careless utterances that necessitate damage control seriously hinder the Congress’ prospects of recapturing power.
- Whether or not Gandhi can succeed in cobbling together a coalition of liberal democratic forces to contain the right-wing’s steady rise or shape a viable prime ministerial candidacy for himself is too early to predict.