Eager for a jolt of energy, the moribund Congress party may have found it in Rahul Gandhi’s star turn in America. During his two-week US tour, the 47-year-old Congress scion has been able to project himself as a man of ideas, aware of the challenges of a chaotically changing, fitfully modernising India. Most of all, he has succeeded in handling himself with poise, easy confidence and wit in front of some of the US’s most hard-boiled politicians, policy wonks and negotiators.
Senior White House officials and Congressmen who interacted with Gandhi described him as “warm and personable” with an understated style that is almost retro in its appeal. “Rahul Gandhi may have a different view, but he doesn’t leave a sour taste,” said a senior White House official. “He had all his facts straight. He is an easy guy to talk to.”
Both in Berkeley and New York, Gandhi said intolerance was ruining India’s reputation and invoked the age-old Gandhian doctrine of ahimsa or nonviolence to launch an attack on right-wing politics, which he said is the reason behind increasing hate crimes. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has pointed out that religious violence has sky-rocketed during the Narendra Modi years despite the country’s status as a pluralistic, secular democracy.
“Divisive politics is ruining India’s reputation abroad and NRIs in the tradition of the great NRIs before them, should stand up to those dividing India now,” Gandhi told a large NRI gathering at Times Square in New York City on Wednesday.
Gandhi is exerting more political influence, as he prepares to be elected party president before October 31. If Gandhi’s American odyssey is any indication of things to come, he appears more confident about setting the tone of the grand old party. Gandhi is a symbol of generational change — even though he is now almost a generation older than the young voters he is supposed to attract. Still, he has conveyed an image of India that is young and vibrant.
Gandhi’s trip has been carefully planned by Indian telecom maverick Sam Pitroda, who has longstanding ties to the Gandhi family. Pitroda is credited with having laid the foundation for India’s telecom revolution in the 1980s as technology advisor to then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. In June this year, Pitroda was appointed the chairman of the Indian National Overseas Congress.
“People who met Rahul Gandhi said he is exactly opposite of what they were told about him. They said, he is logical, cerebral, thinks well, and understands the issues at stake,” said Pitroda.
Earlier the same day, Gandhi had a breakfast meeting in the beautiful home of a tech power couple in Princeton, New Jersey. Excerpts follow from the meeting where Gandhi fielded questions from NRI entrepreneurs and The Wire, the only media organisation present at the meeting.
What has been your experience in the US so far?
We first went to Berkeley, and yesterday we were in Princeton. In the middle we spent some time with technology leaders in San Francisco. I also had meetings with US policymakers, senators, business leaders and think tanks in Washington. It’s been interesting and eye opening. The (Indian) community here is doing a tremendous job. They all are our ambassadors and they have done India very proud.
You have been candid here and talked about policy etc to academic, media and other similar groups. For the most, you’ve also got positive media coverage. Why is it different back home?
India’s biggest media companies that dominate the market are owned by a handful of businessmen. They have a significant role in setting the agenda. That is just a fact. There’s a campaign on me run by the BJP. Thousand guys sitting in Gujarat every day are firing at me on social media platforms so the design is to distort the truth. That’s something you just have to accept. You have to start from there.
Here I have been getting the job message across to people. I don’t agree with the idea that India has lost its big opportunity. There’s no such thing. It’s never too late. India is too big a country to talk about lost opportunities. We are in 2017, and the sky is the limit if we start working.
You have been critical of the BJP government’s policies and the prevailing mood in India. Where do you see the major fault lines?
Thirty thousand young Indians join the job market every single day. I am not even talking about all the existing unemployment. If you take the clock and run it 24 hours, 30,000 new people flood the job market. How many jobs do you think India, a country of 1.3 billion people, is producing currently per day? Four hundred and fifty. That’s the problem. Why Mr Modi came to power was because people in India felt that we were not producing jobs at a fast enough rate. You know what our record was? Two thousand. Still, that’s not good enough. 30,000 people versus 2,000 new jobs. However, Mr Modi’s record is just 450. Amidst all the talk what is getting lost is one critical issue. How will hundreds of millions of Indians scrape out a livelihood in the current jobless environment?
In your assessment, what are some of the key things that have led to a perceived rising tide of public dissatisfaction with three years of the Modi government?
The anger is building up in India right now. You can sense it. Those same people who got angry with us because we could not deliver on those 30,000 jobs are now going to get angry with Mr Modi. So to me, the challenge is how to solve the problem of job creation in a democratic environment. I like the ‘Make in India’ concept, but they are not targeting whom they should. My implementation and focus would be very different. Mr Modi feels large businesses should be targeted. I feel medium and small companies should be targeted. That is where the bulk of the jobs are going to come from in the future for Indians.
Do American business leaders and NRIs still have complaints about mind-numbing bureaucracies, rules and inefficiencies?
The system is not transparent. I heard that everywhere I went. It is closed and foreign businesses don’t know how to navigate it. India is the land of roadblocks, and you have to work with that. The answer from my perspective is to make some of those processes transparent.
What struck you about the democratic process in the US and how is it different from India?
In the United States, parliament is a space for negotiation. You can go to Congress and equivalent houses in the states and you can have a conversation about law-making. Senators actually make laws in the United States. Although the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha were designed to make laws, we are hardly coming up with substantial legislation. We just don’t make laws. What’s happened is that the conversation has been shut down.
In a lot of Indian states the entire law-making system has been hijacked by the chief minister’s office and the bureaucrats who sit around him. We must move to a new paradigm. You have hundreds of members of parliament in India, start getting them involved in serious law-making.
Quite frankly, the Congress party could have done a lot better. But we are better than the NDA, which is absolutely centralised. Still, we could do much better ourselves and law-making should be part of the national discourse.
Uttara Choudhury is a freelance journalist.