There are indications that India of the 21st century – with more people born long after independence in 1947 than ever – is less steeped in colonial memory and its manifestations. But last weekend proved that political statements by Indian leaders abroad, particularly in London, play well in India. Congress president Rahul Gandhi used this continuing resonance of London in India to make a splash in print, television and online.
His words during two days of interactive sessions were vague on policy and detail, but his transition from a lightweight before the 2014 election to one who manages to rile his opponents was widely noted. He made much of the fact that he was exposing himself to the risk of interacting with journalists at an event organised by the Indian Journalists Association, when others – meaning Prime Minister Narendra Modi – choose to avoid such events.
Gandhi’s claim that the Congress was not involved in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots surprised many, but of more surprise was the way in which his comparison of the RSS with the Muslim Brotherhood raised hackles in India. It was not the first time he made the comparison, but doing so in London seemed to add more weight. It was during the campaigning for the May assembly elections in Karnataka that he first made the comparison, but went mostly unnoticed. But this time, BJP spokespersons worked themselves up into a fury, so much so that newspapers who knew it was an old comparison were forced to make that the main story of the day.
To observers in London, Gandhi holding interactive sessions was a refreshing change after the two high-profile visits by Modi in 2015 and in April this year, when he addressed the diaspora, live on television, from the packed Wembley Stadium and the Queen Elizabeth Centre in Westminster. Gandhi made it a point to highlight this difference.
It has been a steep learning curve for Gandhi since 2014, but he also paid a veiled compliment to the BJP and RSS for helping him grow in politics, calling their attacks on him – from being pejoratively called ‘Pappu’ to being ridiculed for being a dynast – a “tremendous gift”.
“The real evolution of my political ideology happened over the last four years. To me, the RSS and BJP have given me a tremendous gift, by relentlessly attacking me on every front, again and again and again. It actually did develop me. So I have to thank them for doing that,” he said.
Gandhi identified ‘arrogance’ as the single-most important factor holding the Congress back. The arrogance has been prompted by long years in office, but he did not set out how he planned to deal with it. People with long memories recalled the contemptuous and feudal ways in which Congress leaders from Delhi would behave when they travelled to the north-eastern states as ‘observers’ or ‘in-charge’ during the presidentship of his father, Rajiv Gandhi.
Gandhi sought to sell the line that he represents India’s tradition of conciliation, everyday secularism and debate without hatred, but could not stop himself from hurling barbs at Modi, his government, BJP and RSS. In doing so, he also reinforced the end of the long-held tradition of avoiding criticism of the government in New Delhi or making domestic political points on foreign soil.
Gandhi, however, is not the first to indulge in such cut-and-thrust of politics. In recent years, Modi has been at it, and so did Gandhi’s party colleague Salman Khurshid who, as the external affairs minister before the 2014 election, made his unhappiness with the Election Commission and the Supreme Court known during his address on ‘Challenges of Democracy in India’ at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
London has long been the site of India’s political space since the days of the freedom struggle, when leading figures operated from here, but it would seem that the capital has become a theatre of domestic politics as any in recent years.
The globalisation of the media has intensified the blurring of boundaries between national and international politics, when, for example, sensitive issues such as ‘Khalistan’, caste, Jammu and Kashmir, terror from Pakistan and human rights go on to figure on the agenda of British politics. Almost all Indian news and entertainment channels bring to the 1.5 million Indian community the feel of being part of the everyday life back home, living in real-time through political and other events. Gandhi did well to exploit this inter-connectedness to gain much news space, even if it may not have added to his political stature back home substantially.