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HomeIndiaRahul Gandhi walked 4,000-km to listen and learn. But was he...

Rahul Gandhi walked 4,000-km to listen and learn. But was he paying attention? News WAALI

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Democracy in India is a “global public good”, added Rahul Gandhi as an afterthought. It cannot fail. Speaking in the British Parliament to a hall full of politicians, diaspora leaders, students and academics, he had just outlined why India’s democratic structures are under threat. From the institutional capture of the Hindu right to stifling dissent, targeting minorities to curtailing media freedom, the list is long. His appeal was sincere, experiences of the Bharat Jodo Yatra spectacular, and focused on inequality, unemployment, institutional integrity and the rights of suitable women. He is not a political greenhorn — quite the opposite. But despite such qualities, Gandhi failed to convince.

Not because it raises questions about India’s democratic credentials on foreign soil. That charge cuts both ways. Not because he is traveling abroad (again) when he should have been in his party office, consoling workers after losses in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura. The charge of excessive international travel also cuts both ways.

Even the criticism that he can miss the mark when responding to basic questions is harsh if somewhat correct. He at least takes questions. Finally, the charge that it represents dynastic politics, although legitimate, is not new. The Gandhis are not alone in that space.

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To understand why Gandhi is not the stalwart fighter for democracy, it is necessary to focus on the albatross hanging around his neck.

He has a will but not a way. It is this antinomy that made the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) confident enough not to interrupt its walk across India. He sees the Yatra as a massive political act and the biggest mobilization the country has seen in decades. There is no doubt that the Yatra did the Congress good. But to confuse it as a mass mobilization that could reinvent a national political mood is the kind of mistake that rookies, or self-obsessed politicians, make. Gandhi is no rookie.

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That’s the first problem. The Yatra was about improving Gandhi’s image. He claims that “ten years ago I would not have imagined that I would need to walk 4,000-km to spread the word”. He also states that he walked because he wanted to listen to people, and that there was an undercurrent against the BJP. But when someone asked him what the people of India actually told him, he did not answer the question. Instead, he admitted that it wasn’t really clear what the purpose of the trip was until he got to the road. To be honest, I see where he’s coming from.

But then recognize that the Yatra was an exercise in self-discovery and image improvement? These are important objectives that he succeeded. To disguise it as mass mobilization without even mentioning the farmers’ protests of 2020-21, the Shaheen Bagh protests of 2019-2020, or the Bharat Bandh of 2022, which all hold the mettle needed to reshape India’s body politic, are rising questions about Gandhi’s intentions. After all, it is hard to miss the contrast between the coercive state response and the media silence faced by these protesters, and how easily Gandhi’s Yatra proceeded. Is this all about him, or is he serious about Opposition politics?

Gandhi’s failure to build alliances, both within and outside the Congress, makes this question a pressing one. At the party, he loses old allies faster than he gains new ones. The list of faults is long and endless. Fueled by the shrinking financial war chest of the Congress, and Gandhi’s ferocious course for internal party control, such losses could not be more sickening. Indira Gandhi could eliminate such centralization because she inherited a party in power. Rahul has inherited a loss. But his actions don’t betray that. Even with the other opposition parties, some of which have successfully challenged the BJP in their states, there is little humility to be seen.

No wonder Gandhi wanted to return to the India he grew up in, where one could “have a conversation” (which many could not), instead of offering another promising future to India’s ambitious youth. This became painfully obvious when he responded to questions about governance. Asked what the first things he would do if he comes to power, Gandhi said he would “think” about how to strengthen India’s democratic space. The reply explained that it does not have an answer to the “global public good” it seeks to protect, even if it has identified areas of legitimate concern.

Similarly, on India’s status as a power, he claimed that he did not like the term “leading” and wants India to be a “transition” power. As India’s response to the Russia-Ukraine war shows, it is already a transition power. That is a worthy goal to have in practice, and not as easy to achieve as one would think. But Gandhi’s statement is ironic for various reasons. For a politician who refuses to relinquish his position as a leader and is unable to build bridges even on his side of the parliamentary floor, how does he plan to make India a global transition power?

Also, if voting patterns show one thing it’s this: Indians want to see the country become a leading power. It may not happen today, or anytime soon for that matter. But that is an aspiration shared across India’s class, caste, ethnic, linguistic, racial and gender divides. Even British parliamentarians and policy makers, whether they find Hindu nationalism acceptable or not, see India as a future leading power. Yet here Gandhi echoes a term from the past, betraying a strange disconnect with what the people of India might want to hear from him.

The author teaches at SOAS University of London and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)


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