News Analysis | Emerging as a tougher opponent: Rahul Gandhi in Europe
New Delhi : Taking a leaf out of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's book, Congress President Rahul Gandhi used his Europe tour to reach out to non-resident Indians, or NRIs -- a group largely known to support Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP) in recent years. Throughout the tour, he targeted Modi for his style and policies, bitterly attacked the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and tried to project him and the Congress party as a better alternative.
Gandhi comes from a family where access is carefully controlled and only a select few are allowed to reach its members. But in London, he gave the impression that he's accessible to the common man. He even mingled with the guests at his gatherings and shook their hands.
Speaking to journalists on Saturday (August 25), he mocked Modi for not talking to them openly. He accused the Prime Minister of not having the courage to answer reporters' questions. This was a reminder of Modi's public event in London in April, where he was accused of taking pre-planned and selected questions from the audience and not addressing even a single press conference. But one has to remember that Modi was also accessible to the media before he became Prime Minister. The question is, will Gandhi attend such open events and answer unscripted questions if he ever becomes the Prime Minister of India?
But still, this was a new Rahul Gandhi in London -- more mature, aggressive, confident and ready to challenge his rivals. His sustained attacks on Modi, the BJP and the RSS were deliberate and sounded like part of a well-planned theme. It's clear that he wanted to provoke the ruling party in India in order to set an agenda for debate. By comparing the RSS with Muslim Brotherhood, he wanted to plant a doubt in the minds of the Hindu right-wing organisation's new supporters in India. This was also an attempt to drive away some voters from the BJP.
By targeting Modi and raising the issue of the alleged threat to India's institutions under his government, Gandhi was trying to become the darling of the intelligentsia that supported the BJP in 2014. By praising Sushma Swaraj, who he's bitterly criticised in the past, and attacking Modi for isolating her, Gandhi sought to create a wedge in the cabinet and was trying to impress upon the audience that he favoured an inclusive government where individual ministers were as important as the Prime Minister.
But we all know that Modi'S style of functioning is very similar to Rahul Gandhi's grandmother, Indira Gandhi. And it's a fact that in present-day India, leaders of all political parties act like dictators and once in government they rarely allow individual ministers to have an independent voice.
In Europe, Rahul Gandhi cleverly avoided talking about his own ambitions of becoming Prime Minister. He didn't want other opposition leaders to stop dreaming about that ambition and thus jeopardise their support for an anti-BJP front during next year's elections. It also went with his theme of projecting himself as a consensus politician.
He fumbled at the press meet earlier when he seemed to agree with Pakistan's position that the main problem currently between the two countries was that India didn't want to talk. But later, in answer to a direct question about Imran Khan's election, he made it clear that relations with Pakistan couldn't improve as long as institutions like the ISI continued to export violence to India.
The Congress president rightly focussed on the unemployment issue and was honest in saying that most countries are facing that problem and don't know how to tackle it. He wanted India to follow China where he said small and medium industries had resulted in large-scale industrialisation and massive job creation. But he should know that a democratic India can't be compared to a totalitarian China. In India, no government can take a decision without attracting scrutiny by the opposition and the media.
But where Rahul Gandhi didn't come out really clever and mature is when he said that the Congress party was not responsible for the massacre of Sikhs after the assassination of his grandmother in 1984. For the second day in London, he failed to correct himself that members of his party were not only responsible but some of them led mobs to kill Sikhs. Although later his party didn't give them tickets for parliament and state assemblies, they were never expelled.
Gandhi's explanation that he condemned all violence and wanted the guilty to be punished, is similar to Modi and BJP leaders saying that they condemned all violence, including those by cow vigilantes, and wanted the perpetrators to be brought to justice. All of a sudden, just months before the general election, Gandhi, has given the BJP and the Akali Dal a major political issue. As Sikhs are in large numbers among the NRIs, he has only managed to provoke their anger against the Congress party.
Gandhi still has a long way to go. He still appears to lack new ideas and the political acumen required to take on Modi. But his Europe tour suggests Modi and the BJP will have to take him seriously. The man they dismissed as "Pappu" for a long time appears to have emerged as a tough challenger.