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  • Foundation of Indian Democracy is Strong, But Being Disturbed- Rahul Gandhi in Washington

    Published on June 3, 2023

    Rahul Gandhi, former Congress President addressed the media at National Press Club, Washington DC (USA) on Friday. 

    Excerpt from the interaction:

    Rahul Gandhi: Thank you very much for inviting me here. I believe my great grandfather came here and my grandmother came here, my father came here. So, it’s an honour for me and I am looking forward to your questions.

    On a question on the status of Indian Economy under the Modi regime:
    Since Mr. Modi came to power what we see on the ground is massive unemployment and a dramatic increase in prices and this is one of the reasons we won the Karnataka elections. There was a feeling in India that there is a set of people who have a huge amount of wealth and then there is large, massive number of Indian people who are poor and struggling, huge income disparities and unemployment, I think, it’s 40 years’ highest unemployment, so to say- the economy is doing well, I don’t quite agree with it.

    On particular policies that are cause for concern or that to be changed
    I think the central difference between how we see it and how the BJP sees it is: we believe in decentralization of power, we believe in supporting small and medium industries, and we believe that they are the engine of growth in India; and they tend to concentrate the power and wealth in few limited people. So, that I would say, broadly, that’s the difference in the economic perspective.

    On Congress party returning to power, what changes will be implemented to ensure the rights of minorities in India
    India has a very robust system already in place, that system has been weakened, but it’s not that the system doesn’t exist. If the democratic conversation is allowed to be fostered, then these issues will settle themselves.

    On whether the rule of law is in place under Modi rule
    No, it’s not! You have to have an independent set of institutions that are not pressurized and controlled and that has been the norm in India. This is an aberration that is taking place in India. So, from our perspective, the foundations of democracy in India are very strong and the protections exist, but they are being disturbed.

    If the Congress party comes to power, which institutions can quickly be restored
    Quickly, I don’t know, but, the Congress Party is the institution that conceptualized them in the first place. So, we don’t view them as our institutions, we view them as institutions of the state and so we ensured that there was independence and neutrality in these institutions, and it’s not difficult to do if that is what you are trying to do.

    On the press freedom in India
    I think, the fact that there is a weakening of press freedom, this is not hidden. Everybody knows it. It is apparent in India. The rest of the world can see it, and I think, press freedom is very-very critical for a democracy.

    One should be open to criticism and one should listen to criticism and that’s the feedback loop that builds democracies and, definitely, there is a weakening of press freedom and it’s not just press freedom, it’s on multiple axes. On multiple axes, there is a clamp down on the institutional framework that allowed India to talk, that allowed the Indian people to negotiate.

    I view India as a negotiation between its people, between different languages, different cultures, different histories and the architecture that Mahatma Gandhi set up before us was to allow that negotiation to be carried out fairly and freely and that structure, that allows the negotiation between India’s people, is coming under pressure.

    This is the question you should ask to Mr. Modi. More apt, I don’t know, how will you get that? I don’t know, how will get that. I think, it will be better question directed at him.

    On concerns with regard to the US citizen law to expel Indian Muslims
    I think all Indian people have a right to expression. All Indian people have a right to religious freedom, all Indian communities should feel free to express themselves. So, I don’t differentiate between any community, any caste. I think India, as I mentioned, it is now a conversation and the freer and more open that conversation, the more powerful India becomes.

    On BJP’s politics of hatred and violence
    I mean, explained in the sentence, right. They generate a certain amount of hatred in society, they polarize society and they are not inclusive, they don’t embrace everybody and they divide society, and that is damaging, in my view, to India. Because India has always had a tradition of conversation of openness. All our great leaders, spiritual, political, Mahatma Gandhi, Buddha, all of them promoted harmony, promoted peace, promoted conversation. So, it’s in our culture, it’s in our history to bring people together and have these dialogues.

    I think, it’s a difference in ideology between us and the BJP. We feel, India should be allowed to express itself, and we feel that political leaders should be comfortable being questioned and should learn from that questioning. It’s just a difference in view point.

    On  Mod’s worldwide high levels of popularity

    There is a definite capture of the institutions of the country, there is a definite capture of the press in the country. I am not convinced about that, I don’t believe everything I hear. I walked across India, walked from Kanyakumari to Kashmir and talked directly to millions of Indian people, and they didn’t seem very happy to me, and they were very clear that there was serious issues with regard to unemployment, there was massive price rice, so there was an angst in the people and you know, look at the Karnataka election and wait and watch the next three or four state elections, that I think is a better indicator of what’s going to happen.

    On Washington warming up to the Modi government
    Who am I to advise, Washington and what they want to do? It’s their choice, they have to decide about these things. It’s pretty clear from our perspective, where we have to go. There are certain values that we protect, and we are serious about protecting those values. As I said, the conversation between the people of India, the idea that all Indians should have equal space, equal expression. These are things for us which are non-negotiable and we fight for them, and we pay the price.

    On the border dispute between India and China
    The fact of the matter is China is occupying our territory. It’s an accepted fact. I think 1,500 square kilometers of land, the size of Delhi, is occupied by them, and I think it is absolutely unacceptable. Prime Minister seems to believe otherwise, I don’t know, maybe he knows something we don’t know.

    On  India’s position in Kashmir and sort of persecution there
    I think everybody in India has a democratic right. Every single person in India should be allowed to be part of the conversation. I think, there are things that can be improved in Jammu and Kashmir with regard to that conversation, and we are committed to improving the democratic conversation in Jammu and Kashmir.

    On Congress idea secularism in the context of its alliance with the Muslim Party, Muslim League (IUML) in Kerala
    Muslim League (IUML) is a completely secular party, there is nothing non-secular about the Muslim League. I think the person hasn’t studied the Muslim League.

    On opposition unity in India and  Congress not supporting Kejriwal on ordinance issue
    That’s an internal discussion we are having. The opposition is pretty well united and I think, it’s getting more and more united. We are having conversations with all the opposition, and I think, quite a lot of good work is happening there.

    It’s a complicated discussion because there are spaces where we are competing also with the opposition. So, it’s little bit of give and take that is required, but I am confident that will happen.

    On Congress party’ s willingness to be part of coalition government
    LWellWell, these are questions that need to be asked to the Congress President because he is the decision maker. I think the Congress Party will do very well in the next election. I think it will surprise people because I think there is a hidden undercurrent building, and I think will surprise people and I am not entirely convinced about this idea that Mr. Narendra Modi is going to win the 2024 election. I think it’s not as simple as people make out. If you just do the math, a united opposition will defeat the BJP on its own without any electoral math.

    On  the role for the international community to prevent a slide of authoritarianism in India
    See,  it’s our job, it’s our business and it’s our work to fight the battle for democracy in India and it’s something that we understand, we accept, and we do, but the thing to remember is that Indian democracy is a global public good because India is large enough. A collapse in democracy in India will have an impact on the world. So, that’s what for you to think about, how much you value Indian democracy, but for us it’s an internal matter and it’s a fight that we are committed to and we are going to win.

    On  Prime Minister Modi’s official state visit to USA later this month

     Let’s see what happens in the visit. I think, let the Prime Minister come here, and let the visit take place, and then let’s see. I don’t want to prejudge this, but, I do think, the relationship between India and the United States is very-very important. I think, it’s also important that we broadbase the relationship. It’s important to have a defence relationship, but I think we need to also consider other areas, and we need to have a vision for other spaces other than defence.

    Do you see India as a centre between Russia, China and USA interests? Do you see it’s benefiting from the interplay at these countries. Do you see, it is taking almost a leadership role in the Indo- Pacific, in terms of economic issue,
    Look, India has to do what’s in its self-interest, and that’s what guides us but, as a people, we are committed to a democratic vision.

    So, I, myself am not entirely convinced about the autocratic vision that is being promoted, and I think it’s very important that democracy is protected on the planet. So, India has a role there. India, of course, has its view on things and I think that view should be put on the table, but I don’t think one should think about these things as owed to you, the centre of things, I think, that would be arrogant.

    We understand the strengths that we bring to the table. Democratic values, data, these are some of the things that technology, a highly educated, technically educated population, these are our strengths and I think, we have to chart our course based on these trends.

    On India is losing its original ideology of secularism
    I think, there is a fight on in India. There are two visions of India. There is the vision that the BJP has. It’s a centralizing vision, it’s a polarizing vision, and then there is another vision equally strong. In fact, if you ask me, much stronger, but not expressing itself that effectively right now, which is a decentralized view, an embracing vision, a sensitive compassionate vision and I am absolutely convinced that this is transitional phase, and the true nature of India, the true democratic nature of India, and compassionate nature of India will triumph. I have no doubt in mind, and by the way, we have gone through this phase before, so it’s not that is a new thing. The Congress Party faced the exact same thing in the ‘thirties and we decimated it and we will do the same again.

    People are impatient… people are very impatient. BJP has been in power for 10 years then, okay we were in power for 10 years before that, why did nobody say in UPA-2 when we had been in power for 8 years… why did nobody say- Oh my God, the BJP is going to evaporate. After all, the same… you know, we were in power for 10 years. So, there is a tendency for the media to exaggerate these things. There are reasons for it also but we are committed to the democratisation of India and we are committed especially to the emancipation of the poor people of India, the lower castes, the backward castes… these communities.

    On freedom of the press in India
     I mean, you don’t really need to do much. You need to just stop interfering and stop pressuring. If you look at the UPA period, we didn’t interfere…we didn’t pressurise and it worked perfectly fine. So, if the leadership of the country decides that a free press is valuable, then it will fall into place.

    On the situation in Bangladesh

    Bangladesh is a friend of India but it’s for Bangladesh to decide these things, it’s not my place to tell Bangladesh how they should live their life.

    On  economic growth as well as divisiveness during the BJP regime
    Well!  I mean you know the $ 3.5 trillion… India has a particular growth rate, so that is just a natural consequence of that growth rate. The question is how is the wealth of India distributed? Is India creating jobs? Are Indian people feeling that they can express themselves? Are they happy? Is there general tranquillity in the country? The Congress party has a record for doing this. We have done it for many, many years. I think a good model is to let the people of India get to work… let them do what they are best at doing and not to pressurise them and threaten them and do that. There is a historical record for this. After all, India did extremely well in the early 2000s.

    There is a cost, you see… there is also something that people don’t realise… it’s that there is massive economic cost to this disharmony, to this non-conversation that filters out. So, saying that Indian economy is doing well… that doesn’t take in the full picture. What are the other costs that you are creating… those are not being factored in. We had better economic growth than the BJP, created more jobs than the BJP and had complete harmony in the country.

    On the biggest drivers of the economy in the short term, in the coming years
    I think, what the BJP’s policies have done, particularly demonetisation and what we considered to be a flawed GST… they have weakened the small and medium businesses in India and we believe that the small and medium businesses are actually the backbone of economic activity in India. If you want to create jobs, if you want to have a 21st century economy, you have to empower these people and turn them from being small and medium business to large business.

    So, in our mind, it’s taking these businesses and scaling them up and having hundreds, if not thousands, of these businesses become large business. So, that’s where we fundamentally differ with the BJP. They believe that you don’t need these small and medium businesses… that you can build the Indian economy with three or four huge massive businesses. Unfortunately, having three or four massive businesses doesn’t translate into jobs… it can’t. So, that’s really the difference between the two visions and you can see it.

    So, the growth during the UPA period was much better than the growth now and there is massive levels of unemployment in India now and it’s a real problem because our people need to be put into productive activity. It’s a huge waste of the most valuable resource on the planet.

    On whether India needs foreign investors for building small and medium business
    I think, the United States… I think that’s when I was talking about broad-basing the relationship, I was talking about that… that the United States and India have synergies… that if they come together, they can be very powerful. What we are facing is a particular vision of the world… Chinese vision of the world that offers productivity, prosperity but under a non-democratic framework. That’s not acceptable to us because we simply cannot thrive under a non-democratic structure.

    So, we have to think about production and prosperity in a democratic framework and I think that’s where the bridge between India and the United States can play a very important role for us, for you and I think… also for the planet to show the rest of the world that production, manufacturing in a democratic environment is possible and can actually be competitive with the Chinese model.

    On environmental concerns
    As I said, you can’t ignore costs and pretend they don’t exist. And when you are thinking about these things, you don’t want to think about them in one-year, two-year, five-year time frame. As a country, you would like to think about them in 20-30-year time frame and if you are looking at that span, then the environment is fundamental. You can’t get away from it. Saying that, the world is in a transition, so we are moving from internal combustion engines to electric motors. There is an energy transition taking place. So, we have to adapt ourselves to benefit from those transitions and I think India is very well placed to do that.

    On  Indian economy needing more exports or new technologies
     It’s both. If India starts manufacturing, starts producing… it will start to export as well. I think, there is an opportunity for India to successfully compete with the Chinese on manufacturing. We might not end up doing it the way that they do it. We might not end up having huge factories, we might end up having smaller factories with high technology embedded in them. So, the system will probably look different but the end result would be similar… that we would compete with China, you would see ‘Made in China’ and you would see ‘Made in India’.

    On thevneed of more Chinese investment in India
    I think, yeah, that’s where the India-US relationship should be looking. That to me is what the conversation should be about… how do we build this alternative production system, alternative manufacturing system and I think there are a lot of interesting things there because of our size, because of data, because of our technological capabilities and your technological capabilities. So, I think the strengthening of the bridge between the United States and India and widening it… taking it from a two-lane highway to 10-15 & 20-lane highway is how I think about it.

    On disqualification from Parliament

    I am the first person in India to be given the highest punishment for a defamation case, I am the first person in the Indian history since 1947. Nobody has been given the maximum sentence on defamation and that too on the first offence. My disqualification happens quite interestingly after I make a speech about Mr. Adani in Parliament, so you can do the math.  My disqualification is not really,  not the most important thing. The most important thing is the thousands and thousands of other voices, civil society, government, bureaucracy, who are being frightened into submission, that’s much more important to me, than my disqualification. My disqualification in many ways is an advantage for me. (The interviewer asked – how so?) Because it opens up completely new spaces for me. It allows me to completely redefine myself, and I think, they have given me a gift, frankly, they don’t think they realise it. But they have.
    Politics is not linear, it’s like… it can suddenly go off into another direction… it’s asymmetric. So, I think, they have given me a gift. It’s not apparent right now, but I think they have.

    On being in politics despite the risks
     I defend an idea, I love the people of my country…in particular, the people who are struggling. I have a bias towards them and I completely empathise with their struggle. It disturbs me when I see the pain in India, and I have no choice because that creates an emotional response in me that I can’t fight. So, it is natural.

    And also, I have grown up with a narrative about my country… Gandhian narrative of what the country is, what it should look like, what is important. So, that’s what drives me. I am not concerned really about threats of violence, and assassination and stuff… everybody is going to die… and that’s what I learnt from my grandmother and my father. So, you don’t back down because of something like that.

    On  Congress policy towards India’s relationship with Russia in the context of Ukraine war
     I think, I don’t know if you like my answer, but I think… similar to how the BJP would or did… we would be responding in a similar way to BJP because we have a relationship with the Russians that can’t be denied, it is there. So, I think our policy would broadly be similar.

    On the relationship with Russia in the context of the ongoing Ukrain war
    I think, in some ways, it might have changed but there is an old historic relationship with Russia and we buy weapons from them, so there are also those type of reasons for this. But I don’t think that Congress government would be dramatically different than what the BJP is doing right now in terms of Russia.
    On SGPC raising objections to comparison of Bharat Jodo Yatra with Guru Nanak Dev ji’s Udasis,
    I said that the tradition of Yatra or a walk is a very deep tradition in India, and I said that many great people have used this instrument of a walk… Mahatma Gandhi has used it, Guru Nanak has used it… as an instrument of conversation and as an instrument of understanding. So, I think, they are saying that I shouldn’t compare the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ to walks that Guru Nanak and Mahatma Gandhi took, but I wasn’t doing that. I clearly said- that look I draw inspiration from these great leaders and what they did, and there is no question of comparing this walk to their walk, but I think they have misunderstood it.

    On why should the people support Congress in the next election
     I said in my Yatra and I will say it in Hindi… ‘Nafrat Ke Bazaar Mein Mohabbat Ki Dukaan Kholo’. Do you speak Hindi? So… ‘Nafrat Ke Bazaar Mein Mohabbat Ki Dukaan Kholo’… in a market of hatred, open a little shop of love and affection.

    So, I believe that India needs to be in harmony, and I believe that India needs to be able to express itself to truly succeed. I don’t know of one case, where somebody who is angry or somebody who is full of hatred had an expansive imagination. And India needs an expansive imagination, India needs to dream big. And you can’t dream big if the people who are leading you are angry, are violent, are engrossed with hatred.

    So, I think, I feel India has a great opportunity, huge opportunity, which can transform the lives of millions and millions of Indians. But in order to do that, it needs to imagine a new India in a big dynamic manner and I think in order to do that, India needs to be in harmony, India needs to start talking to itself, India needs to respect itself. So, that would be one element of it. Hatred doesn’t work, you know that…your country knows that better than anybody else. Hatred has never worked, it might work for six months, one year and then it collapses on itself. Affection, love always work… they have… I mean that’s what we have been told by the great leaders.


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