In a quaint corner of London, but in the heart of the thriving and popular Indian community of Southall-Hounslow, lies Heston Hyde Hotel, uncommonly brimming with people and cars on Sunday, March 5. Congress supporters gathered in droves, jostling their way to hear Rahul Gandhi speak to the Indian diaspora on his week-long trip to the United Kingdom.
Many had to be turned away, with the organisers repeatedly apologising to the crowd that even though they had booked the largest indoor space in West London, it had reached its capacity and could take no more (to which Gandhi murmured, “I was wondering where Indian weddings take place here?”).
Nevertheless, it was a fairly grand reception that Rahul Gandhi received in a hurriedly put-together event by the Indian Overseas Congress, surprisingly drawing a huge crowd of over a thousand on a cold and dull day, an audience who instead of enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon in the comfort of their home, waited patiently for hours to hear Gandhi speak for a few minutes – “a true testament to his popularity in London,” according to Virendra Sharma, member of the UK parliament from Ealing-Southall and the host of the event. Sharma, the longest-serving Indian-origin MP in the UK, will also be hosting Rahul Gandhi in the House of Commons on Monday, March 6.
This being Gandhi’s first foreign trip after Bharat Jodo Yatra, the response was “overwhelming”, says Kamal Daliwal, president of the Indian Overseas Congress, UK. Some attendees came from as far as the USA, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and France to listen to Gandhi’s message of “peace, brotherhood and compassion”.
This event was far different from the usual diaspora receptions in London. There were no celebrities, no song and dance, no script, no overdose of nationalism; just a sense of community cohesion through a host of local and largely unknown people taking the podium and making unrehearsed speeches in languages and dialects from across India, finding a connect with a section of the diverse audience and solidarity with the others.
In typical Indian fashion, even British Indian politicians called their colleagues “bade bhaiyya (elder brother)” or “choti bahan (young sister)” splashed with a generous dose of ‘uncles’ and ‘betas’. Many in the audience discussed traditional recipes, the rising cost of living, and caught up on local gossip. Interestingly, unlike other such diaspora events, there were also no protests and no disruptions.
Speaking of his 4,000 km Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi said, “I decided that my role would be to make the people who join the yatra feel like they have come back home.” He added that he tried to make his fellow walkers feel like they were not speaking with a politician but a father or a brother.
“We don’t want a political relationship with the people joining us for the yatra, we want an emotional, powerful relationship,” said Gandhi adding that “people of all ages, castes, religions came; but there was no anger, no hatred, no violence and no disrespect. So, the yatra demonstrated to the whole country what India is all about”.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra found resonance with many in the UK too. “We saw through the yatra, how Rahul Gandhi talked to people politely and walked with them. He feels a part of our family, he is so full of love,” says Kash Grewal from Twickenham. Councilor of Croydon Manju Shahulhameed, who hails from Kerela, found the Bharat Jodo Yatra to be “a great initiative that shows the importance of community values and how people have to come together to make a difference”.
‘People of India must not be afraid’
Sam Pitroda, head of Overseas Congress, echoed Gandhi’s views when he said that “institutions in India are captured and civil society is not allowed to function in scientific, logical, rational mindset”. He urged the people to reach out to family and friends, use social media, talk to various people and convince them that “India’s future lies in the idea of India that the Congress party has”.
Rahul Gandhi, in his address, urged the people of India to not be afraid. “Savarkar has written in his book that one day he and his 5-6 cronies beat up a Muslim man and he felt very happy about that. Isn’t it cowardice for five people to beat one man? This is their ideology,” Gandhi said.
Linking this to the foreign minister’s response to the threat from China, Gandhi continued: “Foreign minister of India is saying that China is stronger than us, so we cannot fight them. The British were stronger than us, so we shouldn’t have fought with them? How would we ever get independence if we had followed the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] principle and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] principle that we must not fight those stronger than us? At the heart of BJP’s ideology is cowardice.”
Gandhi urged the people to not be afraid of the government. “This is a fight between courage and cowardice. Respect and disrespect, between love and hatred,” he said, adding a line from his Bharat Jodo mission, “Nafrat ke bazaar mein, hum mohabbat ki dukaan kholne aaye hai (in the marketplace of hatred, we have opened a shop of love).”
Many in the audience took hope from this message. “When we look at India, we see how many people are suffering, we need change and even though it looks difficult right now, soon people will realise that they made a mistake,” says Sushma Sharma of Hayes. “We must not give up,” adds Sunita Verma from Southall who sees Rahul Gandhi as a “hope” for those old and helpless in her hometown in Punjab as he knows how to “connect with people and understand their problems.”
Rahul Gandhi is an “icon” for students and young professionals, says Vikram Duhan, youth in-charge at the Indian Overseas Congress and someone who not only participated in the Bharat Jodo Yatra in India but helped organise one in London as a solidarity march in October 2022. “It is important to nurture the young generation, encourage them to join positive politics and bring constructive change,” he said.
Karanveer Singh, a student living in Wembley, is excited to learn from Rahul Gandhi. “He is constantly attacked by politicians and the media and yet continues. I think he is quite brave and that is inspiring.”
Ruhi Khan is an author and journalist based in London.