अजीत सिन्हा / नई दिल्ली
Rahul Gandhi, MP and former Congress President, interacted at the Chatham House, London, UK on India’s changing role in the world.
On a question about the purpose behind 4,000 kilometre long Bharat Jodo Yatra and its learnings, Rahul Gandhi said- Well, thank you for having me here. It is an honour for me to be here, thank you for coming. 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. If you had even told me at that time, I would have said that it was a ridiculous thing to say but 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.
On another question about RSS, Rahul Gandhi said- RSS is…. 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.
So, the conversation, the voice that was free-flowing, the debates, those of all stopped. Some of the biggest decisions taken… demonetisation, which is demonetisation of the Indian currency … we were not allowed to debate in Parliament… the farmers’ bill where large numbers of farmers were out on the street… we were not allowed a conversation in Parliament… the GST… we were not allowed… when Chinese troops entered our territory, we were not allowed to have a conversation in Parliament.
So, that stifling made us ask ourselves fundamental questions – how do we communicate with the people of India when the media is biased, when the institutions are captured and the answer we came up with in the Congress Party was… this walk across the country which has a tradition. The word is 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. It was 4,000 kilometres and it was quite an experience, it was a fun experience… painful at times… but we all learnt a lot and it placed on the table a different narrative of India… not an angry, aggressive, violent narrative which is currently deployed by the BJP… but a peace-loving, almost Gandhian, non-violent, open, accepting narrative and I think, that was the biggest success of the Yatra that it clearly placed on the table a different vision of the country.
On another question about learnings from the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- 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, that instinct went silent. It went silent because frankly I had no choice… one – I had a knee problem, so my mind was trying to calm my knee down and second – the number of people was so big that there was no point. So, after some time, I just went silent and started to listen properly and it was a very powerful experience for me. It taught me patience and there was a huge pressure… I mean to give you an idea, six people died in the walk, many people broke their legs, arms, because there was a huge pressure of people. There were thousands, at times fifty hundred thousand people walking… sort of physical experience… 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 kilo… so I am like… okay! So, it is totally diet… it has nothing to do with exercise… that’s the other thing I learnt. On another question that how has the walk been received politically in India, Rahul Gandhi said- It is transformational, certainly for the party because it gave tremendous energy to our party workers but it was also transformational for a lot of the people who were coming and the powerful thing about it was the physical contact and the scale of the physical contact and it was something… I have been to thousands of meetings, public meetings, conversations like this… it is a completely different thing because when you are walking with… say a farmer, or you are walking with a young woman… there is a struggle going on, particularly if you are walking 25-30 kilometres a day… there is a struggle going on and you sort of… jointly going through that thing… so, it is completely different conversation that happens. The other thing I did… which I think, helped a lot… was right in the beginning, I got the guys I work with and I said – look, what is my responsibility here? What is mine and your responsibility here? We are walking 4,000 kilometres and that is all fine, but what is it that we will not accept in this walk, and I told them that look, what I want…. and there was a rope there… I don’t know if you saw, did you see the video… yeah, there was a rope there and there was quite a lot of security around the rope. So, I told the guys that look, whoever comes into this area to talk to us… and they were 125 of us walking, so it wasn’t just me… I was in front but there were 125 and these conversations were going on with everybody and I said – look, whoever comes in… doesn’t matter who he is, who she is… that person has got to feel it’s home and the feeling I want us to generate is that when they leave this place, they feel that they have left home. So, in my mind, it was not a political exercise…. in my mind, it was a personal exercise where I was welcoming people like into this room and giving them a space to feel comfortable and talk and also making it a personal talk, not a political talk. And we were successful at doing that because there was a lot of pressure… security people pushing and pulling. So, we created this sort of cocoon there where anybody came in, felt comfortable, and then magic started to happen… because the moment they started to see this that there is this connection in the 21st century where we are not going through the WhatsApp or we are not going through Facebook and all that… and there is this gentleman who has come here and these people who have come here and they are talking to us, then the nature of the conversation changed completely and most shocking conversation started to happen, like the most personal things suddenly people were discussing with a stranger really. So, it became almost like… either a friend or a brother… that was the type of conversation… so a lot of stuff came up.
On another question that the attacks on democracy in India are happening at a time when there is a sense that globally democracy is under pressure, do you see any linkages there or do you think there is some sort of global shift against democracy that’s affecting what is happening in India or do you sees the challenges being pretty endogenous to India’s particular political environment, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- They are linked for sure, but each country has its own history, its own philosophy, its own way of thinking about these things. So, definitely 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 and that is visible.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… it’s very particular aspect of society. So, it plays out differently, but it is sort of informed by what is going on in rest of the world.
On another question about pinning a lot of the blame for what is happening in India on BJP and Narendra Modi government, Rahul Gandhi said- I don’t, it is not that I pinned the blame on them… it is that I feel they operationalise it. So, they are the mechanism through which it’s happening, but I said in my Cambridge talk that… I think the problem…. when we walked with… (people), we heard basically four things: unemployment, price rise, inequality, and violence against women… those were the broad themes that came out. But the real problem is the unemployment problem and that is generating a lot of anger, a lot of fear and I think, the unemployment problem is happening because earlier 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. So, the result is that it becomes very difficult for democratic countries to give their youngsters employment. I don’t believe that a country like India can employ all its people with services. I just don’t believe it…it doesn’t work. It doesn’t have the connectivity, it doesn’t have the structure that can deliver youth those jobs. So, to me the question is – can a democratic production model be rebuilt and what does it look like… and I think, that’s at the centre of what is creating the problem and the problem is manifesting in different places differently. In India, it is manifesting along caste lines, along religious lines.On another question about BJP accusations of Congress not being able to cut through on the national stage and how it might be changed leading up to next elections, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- To put it in perspective, if you look at the time from independence to now, the Congress party has been in power for the majority of the time. So, it’s not that BJP has been in power… Before the BJP was in power, we were in power for 10 years… so, it’s not… I mean, the BJP likes to believe that they have come to power in India and they are going to be in power eternally, that’s not the case… but there is a set of 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 change is the nature of the political discourse… that change is 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. So, those things are there. But to say that now the BJP is in power and the Congress has gone, that is actually a ridiculous idea.
And as far as the coercion, the violence that is concerned, it is not the Congress that is saying it… Congress is saying it but you just go to travel in India and see it… you can see what is being done to Dalit community, you can see what is being done to the tribal community, you can see what is being done to the minorities… it is not that the Congress is saying it and objectively it is not being seen… there are Articles all across in the foreign press all the time that there is a serious problem with Indian democracy. And it is also the way the BJP responds. It 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, if 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. On another question how does India move to kind of better, more peaceful smoother negotiation in the next decades, Rahul Gandhi said- Yeah! So one way of looking at India is that it is a country and another way of looking at it is that it is a negotiation between 1.4 billion people and that negotiation… if you imagine India in terms of numbers, it is probably three times Europe, three times the United States, it is probably got as many languages as Europe does, it has certainly got as many histories as Europe does and that negotiation is a complex negotiation and that negotiation happens… 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. You can see sort of the symptoms.. the Prime Minister one day turns around and demonetises the entire currency. The Reserve Bank does not know about it and everything has been bypassed on something as fundamental as the currency of the country and that is an example… it is the same way the GST was worked out. So, you can see that the reliance on those institutions is reducing and that to me is very-very dangerous. So, certainly there is a repair work that needs to be done. On the idea of freedom, on the idea of independent institutions… there is a whole bunch of repair work that needs to be done and then I think, fundamental to a successful India is the decentralisation of power.
So, what is happening… the trend you see is massive concentration of wealth and power and 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… and that to me, a country the size of India simply cannot be run like that. So that to me… the decentralisation, supporting small and medium businesses, starting or reimagining production, manufacturing in a modern way, in a decentralised way, in a technological way… and I think, their linkages between the West and India are critical.On another question about India-China relations and the reasons behind Beijing antagonising India in the last few years, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- ‘Antagonise’ is sort of a benign word… I mean, they are sitting on 2,000 square kilometers of our territory. I don’t know… ‘antagonise’ doesn’t quite capture it. I mean, it does not quite capture it and the interesting thing is that when they did it, our Prime Minister said in a meeting with the Opposition where I was there 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… there is a book – ‘The Argumentative Indian’ by Mr. Amartya Sen, which says we like to talk… we spend a lot of time talking and discussing things and that’s the way we build consensus because it is very complex… and so we in the Congress are pretty clear that whatever is going to be built, whatever is going to happen has to be in a democratic, in an open structure and that of course… that is not China.So, 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. So, to me, that is where the work needs to be done. On another question that how a rapprochement between India or China could happen, Shri Rahul said- I don’t know about rapprochement but I do think that we have to have a vision for production and I don’t think, it is going to look like the Chinese one… it can’t… structurally we can’t do that. So, it has got to be a decentralised one and I think, you are going to have a level of competition between the two countries… there is going to be… on the margins, there is going to be a little bit of tension, a little bit of hostility but 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.
On another question what would the Congress Government do about that, Rahul Gandhi said- Well! we will have to see when we are there in power, but I think, making things clear and certainly not denying that they are sitting in your territory, to start with.
On another question what would India-led world look like, Rahul Gandhi said- I don’t know… I don’t quite like the word ‘led’… I think, it is a joint effort and I think, there are components that the United States has, there are components that Britain has, there are components that India has and they are valuable. So, I don’t like the idea that this has been led by that person, this is being led by that person. I like the idea of a bridge… so how can we imagine a bridge… a bridge of prosperity between these systems and these ideas where we have a role to play… we bring a lot to the table; you bring a lot to the table and let’s have a conversation about what those things are and how we can put it into practice. I think, the world in the 21st century is connected enough where the word ‘led’ is problematic.On another question that are you envisioning some multipolar order, Rahul Gandhi said- Of course, the United States is more powerful. So, one cannot deny that the United States is powerful but everybody is required. You can’t in the 21st century say we are going to exclude you. That is not the possibility… so now what would the Indian elements of that bridge look like…. successful in my view… it would invoke the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, it would be non-violent. It would be sensitive, it would stand for some of those values, which India is very good at doing. It would respect other cultures. It would not be aggressive; it would try to listen to other perspectives. We are going to do that… I mean, in our philosophical structure, we have these ideas. We have this idea called ‘Shunyata’, zero, non-existence, so that can absorb everything. So, those are the types of ideas that I would say that India brings to the table.On a question that Ukraine is a massive issue overseas, does Congress support the Modi Government’s decision of neutrality, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- I would agree with the foreign policy on that issue and there is also an element of national interest. There are interests, we have to look after our interests, so they are there, but I am against any type of war, I am against any type of violence and the sooner it ends, the better it is. And as far as the 21st century is concerned, a war like Ukraine with the potential for unlimited escalation is just downright dangerous, and we should be very careful that it is playing out in Europe and everybody should try and do their bit to stop it.
On another question about India being wary of criticising Russia as it relies on it for military equipment & technology, while the West is courting India, Shri Gandhi said- Look, self-interest is important and then you are saying courting, I don’t know, how well are you courting. It depends, it’s up to you, how well you court India.On another question, could you envision India move away from multi-alignment or non-alignment to kind of hard alliances, Gandhi said- I don’t think about it like that. I think, what is it that we are trying to achieve, start from there, what is our problem. Our problem is we have got a huge population and we need to give them jobs, we need to give them livelihood, we need to give them an imagination and that’s our primary job. Now, we will do whatever it takes to make that happen and the best tool to make it happen, is what we will be doing. We are not going to do anything that will damage the aspirations of our own people. We are not going to do something that is going to damage their employment prospects. So, every country looks at itself, looks at the problems it is trying to solve and then works from there.On another question that what is the economic & industrial model do you see going forward for India to achieve the sort of rapid growth as well as equitable growth that it needs, Gandhi said- In my walk, I walked past a town called Bellary in Karnataka and I literally walked past it 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 5 lakh people, so 5 lakh means half a million. Today, it employs 40,000 people. It is essentially a network of skills… whenever you walk in there, there are people who have a huge amount of skill sitting there and they are doing nothing… and then make that accessible to people. And those centres exist all across India…. there is Bellary, Moradabad… everywhere. Almost every district in India has a skill base that is profound, but then what do we do… or what is happening today…. Huge concentration of wealth, complete control of the banking system by 3 or 4 large industrialists and the skills just lying there, wasting away. Those 4-1/2 lakh 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, that thing will produce a million jobs there.