“Nafrat ke bazaar mein mohabbat ki dukan”—the tagline that came to be associated with the Bharat Jodo Yatra, was not thought of or coined by Congress MP Rahul Gandhi. While addressing MPs, members of the House of Lords, academics, and policymakers in the British Parliament, during his week-long visit to the UK, Gandhi revealed it was an enthusiast who, after several persistent but failed attempts to enter the cordoned ring around Gandhi during the yatra, was pulled in by him who noticed his failed attempts and persistence.
Standing in front of Gandhi, he pointed a finger at him and said, “Mujhe maloom hai tum kya rahe ho. Tum nafrat ke bazaar mein mohabbat ki dukan khol rahe ho.” As they say in SRK language, “Never underestimate the power of the common man.”
Rahul Gandhi's England Outreach
While Gandhi spent the first few days engrossed in academia as a Fellow at the Cambridge University, the last three days were a blitz of public engagements, be it with media, Indian diaspora or intellectuals, academics, policymakers, and British parliamentarians and his final interaction at the prestigious Chatham House.
His political views aside, I noticed a very different Rahul Gandhi from the one I met in 2018 during his interaction at the London School of Economics, London. There is intellectual rigour and logic and however, you label him, he did not hesitate to respond to even the most uncomfortable of questions. His body language remained relaxed and a wry sense of humour was visible off and on.
One thing that struck me was that Gandhi put India on the centre stage of the survival of global democracy when democracies around the globe are collapsing. For those with a global perspective for India, it’s a new and invigorating way to view India.
Speaking at the Judge Business School, Cambridge University, titled Bringing an Indian Perspective, Gandhi said, “Indian democracy is a public good. It is by far the biggest democracy at least because 50 percent of people who live in a democratic space, live in India. So, preserving and defending Indian democracy is more than just about India. It is actually about defending the democratic structure and democratic system on the planet.”
Ouch! That’s a huge responsibility! It made me rethink why Indian democracy is so critical for global democracy.
When I got a chance to speak to him, I asked him that as he said institutions in India are failing, including the media, how does the Opposition plan to work on the ground to rebalance and reset the basic structures of democracy.
He said, “While you were speaking, I was thinking about it. People don’t understand the scale of India and its democracy, so, how would you react if democracy suddenly disappeared in Europe, you’d be shocked and you’d be like that’s a massive blow to democracy. How would you react if a structure three and a half times Europe, suddenly went non-democratic? That’s happened already, that’s not something that is going to happen in the future, it has already happened but there is no reaction. And we are talking about Europe, USA, that’s the thing that shocks me. Of course, there are reasons for that like trade etc, but Indian democracy is the single most important public good.”
Gandhi further added, “Frankly, the opposition is fighting that battle. It’s not just an Indian battle, it’s a much more important battle because it’s a battle for a huge part of the democratic people on this planet.”
He said, “The Opposition has placed an inclusive vision on the table and the Opposition is in conversation and I am confident that we will get something very interesting going forward. I am very optimistic.”
'A Fearless Conviction'
Despite the acerbic criticism he is facing from certain quarters in India about ‘defaming India on foreign soil’, he did not slow down on his scathing attack of ‘BJP-RSS destroying democratic institutions’ – a remark he made at every public interaction. It is not about his political views, but it has to be looked at in the prism of his fearless conviction.
When questioned about the same (‘defaming India’) he said, "Last time I recall the Prime Minister going abroad and announcing that there has been nothing done in 70 years of independence. I remember him saying we had lost a decade of 10 years. He said there is unlimited corruption in India. He said all this abroad," and added, "I have never defamed my country. I will never do it. When he says nothing happened in 70 years, isn't that an insult to every Indian?" he asked.
I must add here, that during all his engagements, apart from this once mentioning Prime Minister Modi’s comments abroad in response to him being questioned on ‘defaming India’, Gandhi, not even once, made any personal attack against Mr Modi or any Cabinet member. As a politician he owns his right to criticize the government, BJP and RSS, but he maintained the dignity to refrain from personal attacks, which was, indeed commendable.
His visit to the UK came soon after the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question had created a furore in India, and it was inevitable that he would be asked about it.
He said, “There is suppression of voice everywhere in India, an example is the BBC documentary. If BBC stops writing against the government, everything will go back to normal.” He added, “Journalists (in India) are intimidated, they are attacked, they are threatened. Journalists who toe the line of the government are rewarded.”
Similarly, he could not escape questions on the war in Ukraine. While he supported India’s foreign policy he was clear that the basic principle of Russia was that ‘we don’t accept your relationship with the West, so we will challenge and change your boundaries.’ He said China has the same mindset. “China does not want us to have relations with the US so it threatens us” and ‘takes away 2000kms of our territory.’ I may find it hard to admit but his maturity, clarity of thought, principle and belief in India is quite noticeable.
It was quite surprising that despite the criticism and often abusive barbs he faces in India, his faith in India remains deeply confident. In fact he responded strongly to a question on authoritarianism in India, ‘it’s our problem, its internal and the solution will come from us.”
During his Cambridge lecture, while comparing USA and China and their methods of production: the former being a democratic one and the latter a coercive one, he maintained India would reconceive production within a democratic system.
During his talk in the Parliament, he said, “The future of India is very good, as long as we can take care of this turbulent period we are going through where our structures are being attacked. I think India has tremendous economic potential, also as a particular way of looking at things, can inform other people about a non-violent and accommodative approach. I think those are very powerful things in the 21st century where you see an increase in violence, where you have people not listening to each other, countries not listening to each other.
There is a solid space for India and I am quite optimistic except for this turbulent phase of closing down voices which we are fighting and I am confident we will win."
“In the DNA of our country we are affectionate and loving.”
(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)