On a cold and dull Sunday afternoon of March 5, I saw an unusual phenomenon when I emerged from the usually chaotic and perennially bustling area of Southall-Hunslow at Heston Hyde in West London.
A huge and vibrant Indian diaspora had gathered for a fairly grand reception to engage with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Between parking spaces and security officials, the giant billboards welcomed the attendees for the event ‘London Greets RG.’
The visit of the scion of the most famous political dynasty comes on the heels of the Bharat Jodo Yatra or the March for Unity, a 4,000 km walk across the country for 136 days, which was met with widespread enthusiasm.
Traversing the length and breadth of the country, it helped Gandhi demonstrate that the Congress continues to be the principal opposition to the BJP.
“At the heart of BJP’s ideology is cowardice,” said Gandhi during his brief interaction with the diaspora. Speaking about his recently concluded Bharat Jodo Yatra, Gandhi explained that he was “forced” to undertake it because there was no other alternative to reach the people of India as institutions of democracy are captured by the BJP and RSS.
Apart from his academic engagements as a Fellow at Cambridge University, Gandhi extensively interacted with the media, Indian diaspora, intelligentsia, policymakers, British MPs, and Lords. Unlike the Prime Minister of India who refrains from taking questions, Gandhi responded to every unscripted question head on.
Throughout his interactions in the UK, Gandhi accused that in the past nine years, freedom of speech has been stifled in India.
‘It is a Battle of Democracy …’
On March 6, his final day of the weeklong tour in the UK, the Wayanad MP at the British Parliament addressed UK parliamentarians and rightly stressed why Indian democracy is important to the world.
“India is a democracy three times the size of the United States and three times the size of Europe,” he told the House. “If democracy crumbles in India, democracy will be weakened everywhere on the planet.”
After his address at the Parliament, I could (briefly) speak with him, asking him how he intends to bring harmony back to the centre of political discourse in India. To which he optimistically replied, “The thing is to fight with all might, as harmony and brotherhood are values enshrined in our constitution. And as an opposition party, the Congress is fighting for the rights and freedom of citizens and bringing inclusivity to the table.”
He added, “It is the battle of democracy that we are fighting that has its impact in harmonising the country.”
The Message of Harmony and Brotherhood
Unlike London’s customary political gatherings and interactions, Gandhi’s engagement with the diaspora in Hounslow was an outlier in every sense – with no dance and cringe music, no storyline and excessive display of nationalism to gain traction.
Despite having reserved the largest indoor banquet hall with a capacity of more than a thousand individuals, the organisers – The Indian Overseas Congress (IOC) – had to constantly apologise while turning several Congress supporters away as it had not only attendees belonging to different states in India – from Punjab to Kerala – but also few flying down from the USA, Belgium, Switzerland, France and other parts of the UK.
The response was “fantastic”, as Vikram Duhan, Youth In-charge of ICO UK, told The Quint. To which Gandhi quipped, “Where do Indian weddings happen here?”
“It is a fight between courage and cowardice, respect and disrespect, between love and hatred,” passionately argued Gandhi and appealed to the diaspora to not be afraid or give up hope about polarisation taking root in India. “Nafrat ke bazaar mein, hum mohabbat ki dukan kholne aaye hai" (We are to spread love in the atmosphere of hatred).” Many in the diaspora also echoed his thoughts on the urgency of bringing love to the focal point of progressive politics.
Some, like Sujata Malik Dalal, were thrilled to see Rahul Gandhi for the first time. Dalal, a 49-year-old artist, migrated to the United Kingdom 24 years ago. At the age of six, in New Delhi, she received Shankar’s Award from Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, the late PM Indira Gandhi.
“Though I moved to the UK in 1999 and was not much involved in politics, I feel Rahul Gandhi spoke to me and his message of harmony and unity has reached my heart,” she told The Quint.
Some of the Issues Were Eye-Opening …
The Waynand MP was able to make the attendees convey and understand the ground realities of India today – which as he learned, from people during the yatra, are entrenched within the domains of inequality and economy.
“The interesting thing for me was what the people of India were saying. Unemployment, price rise and the concentration of wealth. And these are not in the media at all,” he added.
Moreover, for many in the diaspora, the concerns raised were eye-opening – as the diaspora continues to consume news from mainstream media, which is often a site of propaganda that does little effort to report on issues concerning citizens.
MSM has often favoured the establishment in the past decade, significantly increasing their electoral activity abroad in the lead-up to the election.
Despite All, a Glaring Trust Deficit
Gandhi spoke of the dangers of crony capitalism in a country like India during his other interactions. In response to the foreign minister’s acceptance that China is more powerful than India and hence India cannot fight back, Gandhi said, “The British were stronger than us, so we should not have fought with them? How would we ever get independence if we had followed the BJP and RSS principles that we must not fight those stronger than us?”
His take on India-China foreign policy and attacks on Adani, particularly, were taken with a pinch of salt. As per the diaspora, the comments turned out to be an attack on India's growth story.
“China, indeed, is economically more powerful than the United States of America, and hence what is wrong in acknowledging your limitations,” said Aman Singh, a 37-year-old, IT professional living in west London. Singh, who firmly believes India continues to lack strong opposition, added, “Though Bharat Jodo Yatra was good for Rahul Gandhi, it did not change the skewed image of the Congress party.”
This feeling of hurt and disconnect – embedded within contours of long-distance nationalism, integration, economic practices and neo-liberal language – has often been ignored by the Congress. On the contrary, the BJP has fairly managed to do a good job by building on transnational identities.
“And this is precisely why Rahul Gandhi continues to be discarded by the diaspora as he speaks the language that does not appeal to them,” Singh added.
However, each of the diasporic economic aspirations and unwillingness to accept the truth should worry us as a nation. The irony of standing for crony capitalism against social democracy should be a red alert for a country like India.
Far away from the alternative idea of India in the West …
Though there is a general sense of hope that the diaspora’s votes and influence can deliver wins to anti-establishment political groups, the Congress party – and its diasporic institutions – continues to be an exception.
These hopes are essentially founded on two assumptions: that the Indian diaspora is disconnected from sectarian politics; and that many of them have been forced to understand and realise the importance of democracy in the West, which has worked in their favour on political, economic and social fronts.
However, sectarian politics have reached the diaspora – from Leicester to New Jersey – and unfortunately, the diaspora no longer feels the responsibility for the survival of democracy in their homeland and ironically, in most instances, they are the beneficiaries of anti-democratic projects.
As cultural events in the UK are increasingly politicised, it seems Gandhi’s outreach is far from breaking the dominant right wing global political network.
Organisations like the Overseas Friends of Bharatiya Janata Party (OFBJP) has not only attracted and thrived in the UK and the US – but has a significant support base in Europe too.
Whereas, the Congress party, on the other hand, has lost its diasporic support base – arguably after 2014 – that helps to influence Indian voters during the time of elections from abroad.
As long as the engagements with the diaspora do not translate into building trust, it is not conducive to conclude that Gandhi’s engagement will translate into political action and electoral benefit.
Given its scale and engagement, the Congress seems nowhere prepared. Though it did show an alternative idea of India in India, it needs to work multifold to even have a dwarf of alternative voices about India in the west. It certainly needs to imbibe the political and economic language that appeals to the diaspora apart from invoking ideals of Indian democracy and secular polity abroad.
If the diaspora politics can be effectively managed with gimmick techniques and then capitalised on unquestioningly by the BJP, will the Congress need a Vishwa Yatra to understand the diasporic ground realities and disconnects?
“Ab Nahi Toh Kab?,” the Bharat Jodo Yatra punchline might as well help as the alarming call.
Kalrav Joshi is an independent journalist based in London. He writes on politics, culture, technology and climate. He tweets @kalravjoshi_.