Indian American community discovers reinvigorated Rahul Gandhi

By Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

Riding the wave of his remarkably successful Bharat Jodo Yatra and the Congress Party’s assertive electoral victory in Karnataka, Rahul Gandhi’s just concluded diverse engagements in San Francisco, Washington and New York have revealed a reinvigorated politician to the Indian American community.

Unlike his earlier visits, during which also he displayed some of the same ease with a range of domestic and global issues, the difference this time was that the community discovered buoyancy in his dealings, clearly resulting from his nearly 2500-mile or 4000-km long walk from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. Gandhi himself made it a point to repeatedly say how his interactions with tens of thousands of Indians along the way transformed his thinking about the country and the way politics needs to be reformed to meet their aspirations.

By some coincidence, Gandhi’s trip came barely three weeks before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much-heralded state visit to Washington on June 22 and 23. Inevitably, the media in India, particularly broadcast media, breathlessly drew comparisons between Modi’s undeniable popularity with that of Gandhi’s within the Indian American community. Only a few bothered to point out that a prime minister helped by all the instruments of the state that accord him pomp and circumstance and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) well-oiled PR and event management machine is obviously going to be more feted and celebrated than Gandhi.

In contrast, Gandhi continued with his brand of retail politics, glad-handing whomever he met in the three cities and taking the time to answer a wide variety of questions from the media, academia and others. Along the way he also displayed a growing facility with taking unapologetic and sometimes unvarnished jibes at Modi. For instance, in one Bay Area interaction he called the prime minister a “specimen” with barely hidden glee, suggesting that he is a Mr.-know-it-all politician who might even explain how the universe works to god. The use of the word specimen did not go down well with Modi’s vocal constituents here in the U.S. as well as India.

However, the overall tone of the visit was one of a seriousness of purpose by touching upon a wide variety of Indian world issues. For instance, during an event in Silicon Valley on the topic ‘India’s role in the AI (Artificial Intelligence) revolution’, Gandhi made some compelling points. “India and China have the largest dataset on the planet and I think any AI system is going to operate on that data. We have a huge resource. We have to understand what that resource is, and we have to make sure that we benefit from that resource. It is also very easy to dissipate that resource. We have to think carefully about that data, how we are going to utilize that data, who that data belongs to in terms of individuals, state. We need to understand the repercussions of misusing or incorrect use of that data,” Gandhi said.

He also said he does not think India as a country has understood the value of its data. “I worry that we will take decisions with regards to our data that will then become problems later. We want to make sure that India understands that this is actually the nation’s wealth, the people’s wealth and that it needs to be treated with care and vision,” Gandhi said.

While obviously important and of great consequence against the backdrop of the rapid rise of AI, what he said unfortunately does not draw the kind of attention in the Indian media that his throwaway jibes at Modi do.

Another instance when he revealed a thoughtful side of his was when at an event at the Stanford University. While responding to a question he spoke about two models of manufacturing, one an autocratic one as perfected by China and the other that needs to be created—a democratic one where the U.S. and India can join hands. However, even while saying that he spoke in terms of not creating giant, centralized factories of the kind that China has created but a distributive model where the focus is on spreading out manufacture in a decentralized fashion in order to create jobs across the country.

“How do you compete with the production engine of the Chinese? What does a democratic production system look like? If you look at what has happened in the West and in India (is that) we seem to have given up on manufacture. Those are the type of things that need to be discussed,” he said in the context of India-US relations and the prime minister’s visit.

Gandhi was also asked about India’s stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and how he might deal with it were he in power. To a lot of people’s surprise, he said his approach would be more or less the same as that of the Modi government given that Russia now and earlier, as the erstwhile Soviet Union, had been a steadfast supporter of India’s. It was an example of rare agreement between Gandhi and Modi.

It was obvious that his disqualification as a Member of Parliament in the aftermath of a court’s decision against him in a defamation case has not only not affected him, but it appears to have freed him up to speak his mind. At an interaction with the National Press Club in Washington, he described his disqualification as a “gift” to him by the BJP. In the same interaction, Gandhi created some kerfuffle back in India by describing the Muslim League of Kerala as a “completely secular” party. He said “There is nothing nonsecular about the Muslim League” much to the chagrin and anger of the Hindu right. He was responding to a written question from a journalist.

The Gandhi visit may not have been necessarily designed as a platform for him to engage in a range of barbs at the Modi government and the BJP’s brand of politics, but it certainly afforded him the opportunity to do so. By and large though, he kept the focus on more substantive and larger themes.

Gandhi’s concluding outing with the Indian American community at New York’s’ Jacob Javits Center was primarily aimed at energizing members of the Indian Overseas Congress. Speaking to some 700 people, Gandhi cast the upcoming 2024 parliamentary elections as an ideological fight between those who believe in Mohandas Gandhi’s message of love and peace and his “coward” assassin Nathuram Godse’s message of hatred and violence.

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