NEW YORK – It was an appropriate pit stop at the end of a two-week long trip to the United States, giving talks, taking questions at liberal leaning universities and institutes, from the West coast to the East coast, apart from an off-the-record interaction with the editorial board of The Washington Post; and the timing was impeccable, too, before the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi flew back to India: New York City – the de facto headquarters of the overseas wing of the Congress, and venue for the ongoing General Assembly of the United Nations, when media from around the world converge.
Gandhi’s well-planned, coordinated and smooth visit was remarkable for several reasons: it was an unusually long, dogged and determined visit by the 47-year-old man likely to take over as head of the Congress party later this year, become the face of the opposition for the prime minister’s post in the 2019 general elections in India.
Gandhi’s voice and message – when he goes on campaigns, rallies and outreach in India – is usually drowned in a cacophony of backlash and derision from mouthpieces of the ruling party, and right wing media in India.
At the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square, on Wednesday, where he addressed some 400 plus members of the Indian Diaspora, Gandhi’s unscripted speech was far from perfect, his timing not great, punchlines meandered at times. However, for brief moments he seemed to be on a roll, too, philosophical, shaping up a cohesive argument to condemn policies, take a powerful jab like an agile fencer. Oftentimes, though, he seemed to exhale, withdraw, toned it down, almost reticent at attacking the BJP government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Gandhi, however, did lash out and condemn Hindutva, without naming the BJP government.
“I had lots of conversations in my trip. I met lot of people from the administration, I met people from both democratic and republican parties, I met many friends, NRI friends. And I must tell you, I was very surprised because before I could even tell them what I was feeling, before I could even tell them what I was worried about, they told me exactly the same thing. And the single biggest thing most people told me, What has happened to the tolerance that used to prevail in India?” he said, before adding rhetorically, “what has happened to the harmony in India?”
However, Gandhi’s message of India falling behind due to unemployment, jobs creation, was memorable; it may well become the mantra for the Congress party going forward the next two years.
There was rapt attention, plenty of nodding of heads in the room at the Marriott, as Gandhi talked about the paucity of jobs, a reality check for India which has been gloating the last few years of its robust economic growth, even in the face of a global recession.
“The single biggest challenge (for India) and I’ll give it to you in numbers. 30,000 youngsters come into the job market every single day. Today, only 450 of them are getting a job. I’m not even talking about the unemployed,” he said. “This is the biggest challenge in front of our country. And, this challenge is going to be addressed by building a unified approach by bringing people together.”
Those numbers are staggering, to say the least. It was a subject he dwelt on during his first stop at Berkeley, drove the point home.
“No amount of growth is enough for India if it’s not accompanied by the creation of jobs. It doesn’t matter how fast you grow. If you are not creating jobs, you are not actually solving the problem. So the central challenge of India is jobs. Roughly 12 million young people, 12 million, enter the Indian job market every year. Nearly 90 per cent of them have a high school education or less. India is a democratic country and unlike China, it has to create jobs in a democratic environment,” Gandhi said, at Berkeley.
The issue of unemployment and jobs is precisely the reason why Rahul Gandhi has a chance to emulate Donald Trump-like rise, in the general elections in India.
For one, Trump, despite his flirtation with politics for a number of years, seemed wary of jumping into the presidential race, before he contested the primaries. Gandhi, in similar vein, has been a bystander with his mother Sonia Gandhi helming the party, and he seemed to be only an apprentice (no pun, intended). Now, it’s certain that his elevation in the Congress party – almost like a win in India’s party primaries – will elevate him to a direct contest with Modi, some 20 months before the polling, roughly the same time as when Trump got into the fray.
Secondly, Trump came to the forefront of the Republican pack with his rhetoric about limiting illegal immigration and creating jobs, to Make America Great Again, despite the fact that America was doing not too bad on the economic front when the November, 2016, elections came by. Trump, however, latched on to the growing unrest and unemployment in the blue collar industry, and rural areas, conservatives who wanted good paying jobs once again not only for their own generation, but for their children, and subsequent generations.
Gandhi, similarly, has a set platform to carry the same message in India, as the middle class in India yearn to climb up the social ladder, see their children do better than them, watch dreams dissipate as unemployment grows. India has been among the top economic nations in the world, but growth estimates have of late been pared down, manufacturing, small businesses and agriculture hit, stagnant – albeit temporarily as the government assures. Unemployment has become a headache.
Gandhi was adept at drawing this out in his speech, when he talked about how to go about creating more jobs.
“India simply cannot give its youngsters a vision if it is unable to give them a job. The Congress party has a vision to solve this problem. And I will tell you little bit about this vision. Currently, the entire focus is on 50 or 60 really large companies. We believe that if you are to create millions and millions of jobs in India, it has to be done by empowering small and medium businesses and entrepreneurs,” he said.
Gandhi didn’t miss out on shaping the agriculture sector, too.
“Forty percent of India’s vegetables rot. Agriculture can simply not be ignored. There are people from Punjab here, you will understand exactly what I am saying,” he said with a nod to the crowd, adding, “Agriculture is a strategic asset. We need to build agriculture, we need to develop a cold chain, we need to put food processing units close to farms, and we need to empower Indian agriculture. We need to empower our farmers.”
Like Trump, Gandhi too is an elitist, born in luxury. Defending the dynastic rule for Gandhi, as he did at Berkeley, is not so much talking of lineage, as it’s for him a matter-of-fact of privilege granted by birth, a way of life, inculcated also through education in the West. For both Trump and Gandhi, a jump into politics is more about sacrificing to a large extent those perks of luxury, commit to a grueling work schedule for the sake of the country.
Just like Trump, when he decided to jump into the presidential race and was immediately ridiculed for his ambitions, Gandhi too is considered a political novice, a rank outsider and total mismatch in a race against the powerful Modi and the well-oiled NDA alliance. It remains to be seen how much of a disruptor Gandhi is going to be once he takes over the reins of the Congress party, shapes his legacy forward.
In his New York speech, Gandhi talked about the inclusiveness of the Congress party; but as the example of Narayan Rane and others like him before, who quit the party in disgust, suggest, it’s going to be an uphill task to cohesive unity in Congress.
Gandhi, however, showed that he has learnt some tricks from the consummate orator Modi himself, when he addressed the diaspora, in New York. He termed the Indian diaspora “the backbone of our country.” He also called the original Congress party movement “an NRI movement.”
“Mahatma Gandhi was an NRI, Jawaharlal Nehru came back from England, Ambedkar, Azad, Patel, these were all NRIs. Every single one of them went to the outside world, saw the outside world, returned back to India and used some the ideas they got and transformed India,” said Gandhi.
It was the closest Gandhi came all evening to talking in Trumpesque language, giving himself a pat on his back, albeit letting the audience read between the lines; that he too, was one among them: Rahul Gandhi was like them, an NRI, having studied and worked in the United Kingdom, before he returned back to India.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1).