By Harihar Swarup
Democracy in India is a “global public good”. Rahul Gandhi added as an afterthought. It can’t fail. Speaking in British Parliament to a packed hall with politicians, diaspora leaders, students and academic, he’d just outlined why India’s democratic structures are under threat. From the Hindu right’s institutional capture to its stifling of dissent, targeting minorities, curtailing media freedoms, the list is long. His appeal was heartfelt, experiences from the Bharat Jodo Yatra structures, and focus on inequality, unemployment, institutional integrity and women’s rights apt. He’s not a political greenhorn—quite the opposite. But despite such merits, Rahul failed to convince.
Not because he was raising questions about India’s democratic credentials on foreign soil. That charge cuts both ways. Not because he’s travelling aboard (again) when he should have been at 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 not somewhat accurate. He at least takes questions. Finally, the charge that he represents dynastic politics though legitimate, is not new. The Gandhis are not alone in that space.
To grasp why Gandhis is not haloed pro-democracy fighter, there’s a need to focus on the albatross that hangs around his neck.
He has a will but not a way. In this antinomy that made the ruling BJP confident enough to not interrupt his walk across the length of the India. He views the Yatra as a huge political act and the largest mobilization that the country has seen in years. There’s no doubt that Yatra did Congress good. But confusing it as a mass mobilization that the country has not seen in years. And it will reinvent the national mood in favour of the Congress, is an error. .
The Yatra was about improving Gandhi’s image. He claims that ‘ten years ago I wouldn’t have imagined that I will need to walk 4,000-km to spread the word’. He also notes that he walked because he wanted to listen to people, and that there is an undercurrent against the BJP. But when someone asked what the people of India actually told him, he didn’t answer the question. Instead he admitted that he wasn’t really clear about the purpose of walk till he hit the road. To be honest, I see where he’s coming from.
But then acknowledge that the Yatra was just an exercise in self-discovery and improving image? These are important aims in which he succeeded. To 0bfuscate it as mass mobilization without once mentioning the 2020 Bharat Bandh, all of which hold the mettle needed to reshape India’s body politic, raises questions about Gandhi’s intent. After all, it’s difficult to miss the contrast between the coercive state response and media silences faced by those protestors, and the ease with which Gandhi’s yatra proceeded. Is this all about him, or is he serious about Opposition politics?
Rahul’s failure to build alliances, both within and outside the Congress makes this question pressing. In the party, he is losing allies faster than winning new ones. The list of defections is large and increasing Triggered by the Congress’s shrinking financial war-chest, and Rahul’s dogged pursuit for inner party control, such losses cannot be more ill-timed. Indira Gandhi could pull off such centralization because she inherited a party in power. Rahul has inherited loss. But his action don’t betray that. Even with other opposition parties, some of whom have successfully challenged the BJP in their states, there’s is little humility on display.
No wonder Rahul wants to return to an India he grew up in, where one could “converse” (many couldn’t), instead of offering a promising alternative future to India’s aspiration youth. This is became painfully evident when he responded to questions about governance. Asked what are first things he’ll do if he comes to power, Gandhi said he’ll’ “think about” how to strengthen India’s democratic space. The answer clarified that he doesn’t have a fix to the “global public good” he seeks to protect, even if he has identified areas of legitimate concern.
Similarly, on India’s status as a power, he claimed not to like the term “leading” and wants India to be a “bridging” power. As India’s response to the Russia-Ukraine war shows, it already is a “bridging” power. That’s a worthy goal to have in practice, and not as easy to achieve as one would think. But Rahul’s statement is ironic for different reasons. For a politician who’s refusing to give up his leadership position and failing to build bridges even on his side of the parliamentary floor, how does he plan to make India a global bridging power? (IPA Service)