By Sadanand Dhume
September 23, 2017
Can touring the United States help revive Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s flagging political fortunes in India? It may be too early to answer this question, but it’s not too early to sum up the impact of his nearly two-week long coast-to-coast sojourn in America.
Simply put, Gandhi pulled off a successful visit. But only the bravest Congress partisans – a dwindling tribe – can claim that this means his troubles are now miraculously behind him.
Before diagnosing what was missing in Gandhi’s American performance, let’s acknowledge what he got right. For starters the Nehru-Gandhi scion exploded the popular myth, propagated assiduously on social media and WhatsApp, that he is some sort of half-witted man-child whose idea of intellectual stimulation must be Tinkle magazine.
Instead we saw, in both public and private, a thoughtful politician able to express himself clearly on some of the most pressing issues facing India. Gandhi touched upon subjects ranging from Chinese competitiveness in blue collar manufacturing, to mass migration from rural to urban India, to the low agricultural productivity that plagues the countryside. Time to toss the Tinkle theory in the trash where it belongs.
To his credit, Gandhi homed in on the most obvious chinks in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s armour. In event after event the Congress leader explained that about 30,000 young Indians enter the workforce each day, but only 450 of them find employment. Arguably this growing jobs crisis – rather than the more commonly mentioned growth slowdown – best illustrates the mismatch between Modi’s promise of economic revival and his lacklustre performance.
At the same time, Gandhi amplified fears that Modi has empowered some of the more rabid elements in the Sangh Parivar. Since the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh chief minister in March – coupled with a clutch of widely covered beef lynchings – many observers in the West no longer feel confident that economic development lies at the heart of Modi’s agenda.
The idea that BJP is practising “the politics of polarisation” resonates more loudly in San Francisco and New York today than it did just seven months ago.
That Gandhi reached out at all to overseas Indians, a community that he had largely ignored until now, suggests a belated recognition of something that Modi appears to have instinctively grasped a while ago. In a tightly networked world, emigrant Indians play a role in shaping political perceptions in India in a way that was unimaginable a generation ago. Technology has blurred the boundaries of national discourse.
Finally, Gandhi benefited from appearing open and relatively down-to-earth. At both Berkeley and Princeton he took questions, some of which echoed widespread scepticism about both his own privileged dynastic background and his party’s uncertain future. This was not exactly a grilling, but compared to Modi – who did not even allow customary questions after releasing a joint press statement with Trump in June – Gandhi came off looking approachable.
You can’t really blame Congress for making much of all this. After the party’s drubbing in Uttar Pradesh, and chief minister Nitish Kumar’s defection in Bihar, any scrap of good news is welcome. But while Gandhi easily surpassed expectations for many people, to suggest that this marks some sort of turning point for him remains woefully premature.
To begin with, the power of networks notwithstanding, Berkeley and Princeton are a long way from Bikaner and Patna. Its one thing to charm audiences at elite Western universities, quite another to connect with the people who will actually elect the next prime minister.
I caught a glimpse of Gandhi’s less-than-stellar political skills in New York on Wednesday. In a private room ahead of his speech he posed stiffly for photos with an endless parade of pushy non-resident Indians. A natural politician would have fed off the human energy. Gandhi bore the haunted look of a librarian forced to publicly perform vaudeville.
In the hotel auditorium where Gandhi spoke, the crowd was a fraction of what had gathered to cheer Modi three years ago in Madison Square Garden. More worrying for Congress, none of those I spoke with counted themselves as Gandhi supporters. They were there to gawk at a celebrity or out of some sort of nostalgia for a time when the Nehru-Gandhis were synonymous with political power in India.
Nor is it clear that Gandhi has fully comprehended why Congress has crashed, or what it must do to retool. His vision for India appears blandly technocratic – getting small and medium enterprises to generate those much-needed jobs, using cold chains and food processing to boost agriculture, and improving health and education. He hopes to do all this while increasing transparency and devolving power to local governments.
Missing is any acknowledgment that India may have changed fundamentally since Congress last won an election eight years ago. At Princeton, the prominent scholar of Islam Bernard Haykel asked Gandhi if newer forces of “vernacularisation” were displacing Anglophone elites like him. In response, Gandhi said the “central reason” behind Modi’s rise “is the question of jobs”.
Perhaps the Congress vice-president is right. Maybe deep down the people of India seek a leader who talks of “opening up structures” and “deepening conversations”. But based on the evidence we’ve seen so far, Gandhi’s argument seems to work better in Berkeley than in Bahraich or Bareilly.