New York City: “Nafrat ke bazaar mein mohabbat ki dukaan (A shop for love in the market of hatred).” That the Indian National Congress is responding to the politics of hate with love was a thought repeated multiple times by its leader Rahul Gandhi during his three-city trip in the United States, as he made efforts to reach out to the Indian diaspora ahead of the 2024 general elections.
“There is an attack on the democratic structure, on our institutions, judiciary, media, and it is your responsibility and our responsibility to defend the idea of India. Modern India cannot exist without our Constitution and democracy,” he said at the public event organised by the Indian Overseas Congress at New York City’s Javits Center, where he was received with much fanfare and applause.
He invoked the idea that the founding leaders of India were also “NRIs” or Non Resident Indians, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar, Sardar Patel, “who had an open mind to the outside world” and went back with “interesting ideas”. “So that’s what I expect from you. You are the next future generation of Nehrus and Gandhis,” he said.
He further highlighted how the ideas of diversity and coexistence are inherent in the diaspora, and said: “To be nasty to people, to be arrogant, to be violent, these are not Indian values. If they were Indian values, why would we be celebrating Mahatma Gandhi, Guru Nanak, Ambedkar, Basavaraj and Narayana Guru? …So this is a new fashion that to express Indianness, you have to be hateful, abusive and beat people,” he said. He further added that the fight in India was between “two ideologies”, one that belonged to Mahatma Gandhi and the other to Nathuram Godse.
Sudhanshu Sethi, an IT professional and resident of New Jersey, was accompanied by his wife and teenage son. He had started following Gandhi’s interviews and speeches closely after following his five-month-long Bharat Jodo Yatra earlier this year. “India’s social fabric has been altered ever since the BJP has come to power in India and religious divide has taken over. I don’t think Rahul Gandhi can do much as a politician but I like what he says,” said Sethi. He had posted a photograph of the event on his Facebook, which his wife forced him to delete out of the fear that it could prompt arguments with his Modi-supporting friends.
Thomas Varaickamackal, who has been living in the US for 36 years, said that he doesn’t think Gandhi “can come to power”, but liked listening to his speeches. “He is raising the true voice of the ordinary people,” said the Long Island resident, who was one of many from the Malayali diaspora at the event.
Rishabh Kaurav, a PhD student at City University of New York, was also curious about Gandhi after the Yatra. “It made us look at Gandhi with a new perspective and it has helped him shed his previous image. He feels like a janta ka leader (people’s leader) and that we have greater accessibility to him,” he said. That the event was happening in a hall rather than a big stadium felt more intimate to him.
During his address in New York, Gandhi also stressed on the need for a strong partnership between India and the US to offset China’s influence. “One of the things we have to think about is the bridge between India and the United States,” he said. “How do we compete with the challenge the Chinese have placed on the table,” he asked, citing issues of mobility and the world’s energy supply.
Senior Congress leaders, including Mani Shankar Aiyer, Deepender Singh Hooda, Amrinder Singh Brar, Rudraraju Gidugu, Alka Lamba and many others also addressed the audience.
Gandhi’s trip follows his disqualification from the Lok Sabha in March, after he was convicted in a criminal defamation case for a speech he had given in 2019 and given the maximum prison sentence of two years. That Gandhi travelled on an ordinary passport after surrendering his diplomatic passport and stood in the immigration queue for two hours was highlighted in the news reports. His speaking engagements during his time in the US also included Stanford University in California and the National Press Club in Washington D.C.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also travel to the US later in June for an official state visit, where he will be hosted by US President Joe Biden at the White House. This will be his first state visit to the country during Modi’s nine-year reign as prime minister, where he will also address a joint meeting of the Congress.
It was Modi who had first started mobilising his support base in the Indian diaspora communities when he first became prime minister in 2014. Jam-packed stadiums in New York City, Dallas and recently in Australia’s Sydney have often made headlines, along with the inroads that the Bharatiya Janata Party have made in diaspora. Indians represent the second largest immigrant group in the US, with a population of 2.7 million as of 2021, and make up 6% of the total foreign-born population in the country.
Surbhi Gupta is the South Asia Editor at New Lines Magazine and is based in New York City.