Did Rahul Gandhi defame India abroad?

...Or is part of BJP's toolkit to defame an Opposition leader who has grilled the Prime Minister over suspicious business practices of Gautam Adani and out of turn favours given to him by this govt?

Rahul Gandhi speaks at an event at Chatham House in London on 6 March 2023
Rahul Gandhi speaks at an event at Chatham House in London on 6 March 2023

NH Web Desk

All truths are half-truths, a Western philosopher is believed to have said. And half-truths are like half bricks—they can be thrown farther. Desperate to drown out the deafening questions on the cosy proximity between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and businessman Gautam Adani after a Hindenburg Research report blew the lid off, the BJP has been trying to create a counter-narrative that Congress MP Rahul Gandhi has defamed India abroad.

The party has made demands to end his membership of the Lok Sabha or force him to apologise to both houses of Parliament, and disrupted proceedings in Parliament. Defence minister Rajnath Singh said in the Lok Sabha that Rahul Gandhi had “insulted India” in London and invited Western intervention.

Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal said in the Rajya Sabha that this was the first time the Indian Parliament had been “insulted” on foreign soil. Before Parliament reconvened for the second part of the budget session on 13 March, Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar, while addressing an ‘Ayurveda Kumbh’, exhorted people to raise their voices against leaders who defame the nation.

“How dare they claim their mics are switched off to prevent them from being heard?,” he asked, affecting great indignation. Prime Minister Modi himself criticised Opposition leaders for allegedly defaming India’s democratic traditions. BJP parliamentarian and hate-speech celebrity Pragya Singh Thakur demanded that Rahul Gandhi be prosecuted for sedition, no less.

So, what did Rahul Gandhi say? He did say that the structures of democracy in India are under attack. Finding a faulty microphone in the British Parliament, he did joke that microphones in the Indian Parliament were not usually out of order but “you still cannot switch them on”.

Enraged by the concerted attacks on Rahul Gandhi, inventor-entrepreneur Sam Pitroda, who is credited with ushering in the telecom revolution in India, wondered why the Indian media had blindly amplified these allegations without verifying the facts. “Were you there? Did you see the video? Do you really know what he said? In what context?” tweeted Pitroda, who is actively involved with the Indian Overseas Congress. Rahul Gandhi had made the following points, he further said:

• Indian democracy is a global public good

• The state of democracy in India is of utmost concern

• It is an Indian problem and Indians will deal with it

“He never invited any foreign countries to help. I was there as an Indian professional with a logical, rational and open mind, eyes and ears.” Pitroda also called attention to Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge’s reminders of the kind of statements Prime Minister Modi has made on foreign soil.

For instance, in China, Modi told a gathering of the Indian diaspora: “Earlier, you felt ashamed of being born in India.” In South Korea, he addressed a similar gathering and said there was a time when Indians considered it a curse to have been born in India.

“People used to wonder what sin they had committed in their past life to have been born in India.” An editorial in The Telegraph summed up the controversy in the following words: ‘It is unlikely that Mr Modi or his peers would engage in a substantial debate on the points raised by Mr Gandhi. Their ploy, evidently, is to evoke a shrill, emotive response that would, apart from reiterating the BJP’s specious claims on nationalism, yield political dividends. It must be noted that the prime minister brought up the incident in poll-bound Karnataka where the BJP is expected to face a spirited challenge from the Congress.”

While the Modi government may continue to diss international surveys and democracy rankings, it is widely known that India has slipped on the democracy index. It has been called a ‘partial democracy’, an ‘electoral democracy’ and a ‘partial autocracy’ by different agencies and the media.

Even with the kind of stranglehold the government has on the media narrative, it is practically impossible to avoid global attention on the demonising of Sikhs as ‘Khalistanis’, the attacks and discrimination faced by Dalits and the othering of Muslims in the country. Nor is it possible to entirely black out the ways in which the current regime is using the central investigative agencies to intimidate opposition leaders.

Excerpts from what Rahul Gandhi said at his guest lecture in Cambridge and during his recent interactions in London:

Indian politics in 2023 When I joined politics in 2004, the democratic contest in India used to be between political parties and I had never imagined at that time that the nature of the contest would change completely. The nature of the democratic contest in India has completely changed and the reason it has changed is because one organisation called the RSS… fundamentalist, fascist organisation…. has basically captured pretty much all of India’s institutions.

India in transition If we step back from the BJP-Congress conversation, what’s actually happening is a huge transition in India, huge migration of people and India is now searching for a new model with which to engage with its people and rest of the world and what is pretty clear is… that the BJP model is not it, because it is creating much too much turbulence, much too much resistance.

Bharat Jodo Yatra There is a tradition of ‘Yatras’ in India. In a sense ‘Yatra’ is in our DNA. Think of Guru Nanak, Buddha, Mahavira, Vivekananda—they all walked through the country—walking, suffering, discovering, listening and understanding (the country and yourself). The most remembered and the most effective of these Yatras is of course the ones undertaken by Mahatma Gandhi. Yatra… it is a journey but it is not simply a journey, it is an Indian idea of walking, of persevering, of listening and of questioning oneself and so we decided do this.

BJP also took out a Yatra. They called it a ‘Rath Yatra’, with BJP leaders travelling in a rath (chariot, mounted over a truck) which was followed by more cars. The rath is of course a symbol of the king. So, there was a philosophical difference between their yatra and the Bharat Jodo Yatra, which was mobilisation of the people. We were listening to the voices of the people— not talking down to them.

The power of listening I learnt many, many things. The first thing I learnt was that listening, especially listening to large numbers of people, is something very powerful and I realised that as a politician, before my walk, I was not actually listening properly.

As politicians, we always start by telling you what we think, and we have a narrative in our mind. Whenever somebody says something, that narrative is shaping our conversation. Maybe we want to impress a little bit and say we understand what you are trying to get at.

So, after some time, I started to listen properly and it was a very powerful experience for me. It taught me patience…and the other thing I learnt is that no amount of exercise makes you lose weight, it is… like… completely a myth. At the end of this thing… 4,000 kilometres… I go on the scale and I put on a kilogram… so I am like… okay! So, it is totally diet… it has nothing to do with exercise… that’s the other thing I learnt.

A national shame In the walk, a lot of women came up to me and quite a few of the women spoke about violence that had been done to them and in one of the cases… actually in many of the cases… but in one particular case… she had been attacked, she had been molested, raped… and I asked her-listen, should we call the police and she said- no, don’t call the police, because… then I will be shamed. So, I was thinking to myself - this poor girl is now going to live the rest of her life, never telling anybody this and it is going to multiply the pain of what happened to her…that is something I would like to change…that the level of violence against women reduces and particularly this idea… that of shame, which is completely a ridiculous idea, is changed.

Democracy in decline There are two sort of visions of the planet emerging… that to me is clear… there is a sort of free, democratic, open space idea and then there is a sort of more controlled, coercive idea.

There are some nuances to it in India. First of all, it is not a battle between political parties anymore… it is a battle between two old ideas of India and philosophical ideas of India which are diametrically opposed, different… and the BJP represents one and we represent the other. In India, also there is the matter of caste which does not exist for example in England, or the United States…

How would you react in Europe if you find one day that democracy has disappeared? This has already happened in India.

if you imagine India in terms of numbers, it is probably three times Europe, three times the United States, it has probably got as many languages as Europe does, it has certainly got as many histories as Europe does… (but there is no reaction in the democratic world).

(Governance) is a complex negotiation and…it does not happen out in the streets, it happens through institutions, it happens through the Parliament, it happens through Assemblies, it happens through the courts, it happens through the Election Commission and my worry is that the architecture of that negotiation is being attacked and broken.

Tackling unemployment If you look at the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, there was a concept of production in the democratic environment. Countries like Britain… countries like India, America… they produced things and there was manufacturing, there was production going on and then for whatever reason, that was parcelled out to China, and today we live in a world where there is a production model in the coercive environment, but there is no production model in the democratic environment. Production (of goods and services) is no longer being done effectively in democracies.

I do not appreciate the Chinese model of production, the coercive model of production. But the Chinese are better at it and more effective. Massive concentration of wealth in democracies and growing inequality are coming in the way.

In my walk, I walked past a town called Bellary and some people over there said, 'look, this is a jeans producing centre and please come and see what we are doing'. So, I spent half a day walking around Bellary and looking at this jeans production that they were doing. It used to employ half a million people. Today, it employs 40,000 people... there are people who have a huge amount of skill sitting there and doing nothing… those centres exist all across India… there is Bellary, Moradabad… everywhere.

Almost every district in India has a skill base that is profound, but what is happening today…huge concentration of wealth, complete control of the banking system by three or four large industrialists and the skills just lying there, wasting away. Those four and a half lakh (450,000) people today are unemployed… that Bellary itself, if it’s aligned properly, if the banking system is made accessible to them, if you inject technology into that skill space, it will produce a million jobs there.

I am not saying that there is no space for large business…but the level of monopolisation that is taking place today is seriously problematic. It is problematic if you want to give Indian people jobs, it is problematic if you want to have a productive vision for the country.

I don’t believe that a country like India can employ all its people in services…so, to me the question is - can a democratic production model be rebuilt…the problem is manifesting in different places differently. In India, it is manifesting along caste lines, along religious lines.

BJP and the Opposition The BJP likes to believe that they have come to power in India and they are going to be in power eternally…there are changes that are taking place in India… the Congress party and the UPA in its time were caught by those changes…the biggest change is that India is moving from a rural country to an urban country… and that is changing the nature of the political discourse… changing the nature of the structure. And we were focusing a lot on the rural space and we missed the ball in the beginning on the urban space, that is a fact.

And as far as the coercion, the violence…you just go to travel in India and see it… you can see what is being done to the Dalit community, you can see what is being done to the tribal community, you can see what is being done to the minorities… there are articles all across in the foreign press all the time that there is a serious problem with Indian democracy.

The BJP is not interested in a conversation. They have decided it that they know what is going on, nobody else in the country understands what is going on and that’s it… and this is visible… I mean, you can ask any Opposition party… you can see for example how the agencies are used… you can ask any Opposition leader about how the agencies are used… my phone had Pegasus on it, that simply was not happening when we were in power. So, there are things that are very obvious and apparent to everybody.

If you really look at the BJP and see what is the one big thing that they have done, it is huge concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office and then huge concentration of wealth in the hands of two or three people…a country the size of India simply cannot be run like that.

What is RSS? You can call it a secret society. It is built along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood and the idea is to use the democratic contest to come to power and then subvert the democratic contest afterwards. And it shocked me at how successful they have been at capturing the different institutions of our country… the press, the judiciary, Parliament, Election Commission -- all the institutions are under pressure, under threat and controlled in one way or the other.

Can the West help? This is our problem, it is an internal problem and it is Indian problem and the solution is going to come from inside, it is not going to come from outside.

However, the scale of Indian democracy means that democracy in India is a global public good, it impacts way further than our boundaries. If Indian democracy collapses in my view, democracy on the planet suffers a very serious, possibly a fatal blow. So, it is important for you too. It is not just important for us.

We will deal with our problem, but you must be aware that this problem is going to play out at a global scale, it is not just going to play out in India and what you do about it… is of course up to you, but you must be aware that in what is happening in India, the idea of a democratic model is being attacked and threatened.

Overseas Indians The battle for democratic institutions of India is frankly India’s responsibility and no one else’s and it is something that we are doing, but you, of course, are Indian, so it is your responsibility as well and you are part of that discussion.

When you said about your father being in the RSS and about him not recognising our country…is a very powerful thing…by expressing yourself and by making your position clear, you are already helping in a big way. I think, by telling people the values that you stand for, the values that are Indian and that you protect by telling everybody in the rest of the world that India needs to go back to those values, you are doing this service. So, thank you. (Responding to a question from Malini Mehra)

On Pakistan My personal view is that it is important that we have good relations with everybody around us, but that also depends on the actions of the Pakistanis. If the Pakistanis are promoting terrorism in India, that becomes very difficult to do and that does happen.

China and foreign policy If you look at what has happened in Ukraine is (that) the Russians have told Ukrainians that we do not accept the relationship you have with Europe and America and if you do not change this relationship, we will change your territory, we will challenge your territorial integrity.

In my view, that is what is happening on the borders of my country…China does not want us to have a relationship with the United States and it is threatening us by saying- if you continue to have this relationship with the United States, we will take action and that’s why they have got troops in Ladakh and that’s why they have got troops in Arunachal Pradesh.

I mentioned this to the Foreign Minister, he completely disagrees with me and he thinks…this is a ludicrous idea. It is fine, we have a difference of opinion.

Chinese aggression The Chinese are sitting on 2,000 square kilometers of our territory…and the interesting thing is that when they did it, our Prime Minister said in a meeting with the Opposition that not a single inch of Indian territory has been taken… now what message does that send to the Chinese. The Chinese know they are sitting on 2,000 square kilometers of our territory, our military knows it and our Prime Minister says well, they are not there. So, it encourages them… that is the one aspect of the problem.

As a country, our ethos and our DNA is democratic… that is not China. We are much more comfortable with the democratic idea, that open idea. Of course, at the same time, they are our neighbour and we are in competition with them and frankly, if we are going to talk about production, we are the biggest game in town and so they see us as a problem.

So, my approach is they are offering a vision of productivity, of prosperity… well, we should have a vision of prosperity too and that includes the West and India, but that is missing. I think, it is very important that the lines are clear… I mean, they are sitting on 2,000 square kilometers of our territory. That is the fact. India would resist being bullied.

Ukraine As for Ukraine, I do not have a huge disagreement with India’s foreign policy. The principle of foreign policy is, unfortunately, self-interest and any Indian government would pay attention to that… I would agree with the foreign policy on that issue…we have to look after our interests… but I am against any type of war, I am against any type of violence and the sooner it ends, the better it is. A war like Ukraine with the potential for unlimited escalation is just downright dangerous, and we should be very careful.

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