Shri Rahul Gandhi, MP and former Congress President, interacted at the Chatham House, London, UK on ‘India’s changing role in the world’ on March 06, 2023
On a question about the purpose behind 4,000-kilometre long ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ and its learnings, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- Well, thank you for having me here. It is an honour for me to be here. When I joined politics in 2004, the democratic contest in India used to be between political parties and I had never imagined at that time that the nature of the contest would change completely. And the reason it has changed is because one organization called the RSS… fundamentalist, fascist organization…. has basically, captured pretty much all of India’s institutions.
On another question about RSS, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- RSS is…. you can call it a ‘Secret Society’. It is built along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood and the idea is to use the democratic contest to come to power and then subvert the democratic contest afterwards. And it shocked me at how successful they have been at capturing the different institutions of our country… the press, the judiciary, the Parliament, the Election Commission - all the institutions are under pressure, under threat and controlled in one way or the other.
So, that stifling made us ask ourselves fundamental questions - how do we communicate with the people of India when the media is biased, when the institutions are captured and the answer we came up with in the Congress Party was - this walk across the country which has a tradition. The word is ‘Yatra’… it is a journey but it is not simply a journey, it is an Indian idea of walking, of persevering, of listening and of questioning oneself and so we decided to do this. It was 4,000 kilometers and it was quite an experience, it was a fun experience… painful at times… but we all learnt a lot and it placed on the table a different narrative of India - not an angry, aggressive, violent narrative which is currently deployed by the BJP, but a peace-loving, almost Gandhian, non-violent, open, accepting narrative - and I think, that was the biggest success of the Yatra that it clearly placed on the table a different vision of the country.
On another question about learnings from the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- I learnt many-many things. The first thing I learnt was that listening, especially listening to large numbers of people, is something very powerful and I realized that as a politician, before my walk, I was not actually listening properly. As politicians, we always start by telling you what we think, and we have a narrative in our mind. Whenever somebody says something, that narrative is shaping our conversation. Maybe we want to impress a little bit and say we understand what you are trying to get at. So, that instinct went silent and I started to listen properly and it was a very powerful experience for me. It taught me patience and there was a huge pressure. There were thousands, at times fifty hundred thousand people walking… sort of physical experience… and the other thing I learnt is that no amount of exercise makes you lose weight, it is… like… completely a myth. At the end of this thing… 4,000 kilometres… I go on the scale and I put on a kilo… so I am like… okay! So, it is totally diet… it has nothing to do with exercise… that’s the other thing I learnt.
On another question that how has the walk been received politically in India, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- It is transformational, certainly for the Party because it gave tremendous energy to our Party workers but it was also transformational for a lot of the people who were coming and the powerful thing about it was the physical contact and the scale of the physical contact and it is a completely different thing because when you are walking with - say a farmer, or you are walking with a young woman - there is a struggle going on, particularly if you are walking 25-30 kilometres a day… there is a struggle going on and you sort of… jointly going through that thing… so, it is completely different conversation that happens.
It was not a political exercise…. in my mind, it was a personal exercise where I was welcoming people like into this room and giving them a space to feel comfortable and talk and also making it a personal talk, not a political talk.
So, the nature of the conversation changed completely and most shocking conversation started to happen, like the most personal things suddenly people were discussing with a stranger really. So, it became almost like… either a friend or a brother… that was the type of conversation… so a lot of stuff came up.
On another question that the attacks on democracy in India are happening at a time when there is a sense that globally, democracy is under pressure, do you see any linkages there or do you think there is some sort of global shift against democracy that’s affecting what is happening in India or do you see the challenges being pretty endogenous to India’s particular political environment, Shri Rahul Gandhi said-They are linked for sure, but each country has its own history, its own philosophy, its own way of thinking about these things. So, definitely there are two sorts of visions of the planet emerging… that to me is clear… there is a sort of free, democratic, open space idea and then there is a sort of more controlled, coercive idea and that is visible.
There are some nuances to it in India. First of all, it is not a battle between political parties anymore… it is a battle between two old ideas of India and philosophical ideas of India which are diametrically opposed, different… and the BJP represents one and we represent the other. In India, also there is the matter of caste which does not exist for example in England, or the United States… it’s very particular aspect of society. So, it plays out differently, but it is sort of informed by what is going on in rest of the world.
On another question about pinning a lot of the blame for what is happening in India on BJP and Narendra Modi government, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- It is not that I pinned the blame on them… it is that I feel they operationalize it. So, they are the mechanism through which it’s happening. The real problem is the unemployment problem and that is generating a lot of anger, a lot of fear and I think, the unemployment problem is happening because earlier if you look at the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, there was a concept of production in the democratic environment. Countries like Britain… countries like India, America… they produced things and there was manufacturing, there was production going on and then for whatever reason, that was parceled out to China, and today we live in a world where there is a production model in the coercive environment, but there is no production model in the democratic environment. So, the result is that it becomes very difficult for democratic countries to give their youngsters employment.
I don’t believe that a country like India can employ all its people with services. I just don’t believe it…it doesn’t work. It doesn’t have the connectivity. It doesn’t have the structure that can deliver youth those jobs. So, to me the question is - can a democratic production model be rebuilt and what does it look like… and I think, that’s at the centre of what is creating the problem and the problem is manifesting in different places differently. In India, it is manifesting along caste lines, along religious lines.
On another question about BJP accusations of Congress not being able to cut through on the national stage and how it might be changed leading up to next elections, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- To put it in perspective, if you look at the time from independence to now, the Congress Party has been in power for the majority of the time. So, it’s not that BJP has been in power… Before the BJP was in power, we were in power for 10 years… so, it’s not… I mean, the BJP likes to believe that they have come to power in India and they are going to be in power eternally, that’s not the case. To say that now the BJP is in power and the Congress has gone, that is actually a ridiculous idea.
And as far as the coercion, the violence that is concerned, it is not the Congress that is saying it… but you just go to travel in India and see it… you can see what is being done to Dalit community, you can see what is being done to the tribal community, you can see what is being done to the minorities… it is not that the Congress is saying it and objectively it is not being seen… there are Articles all across in the foreign press all the time that there is a serious problem with Indian democracy. And it is also the way the BJP responds. It is not interested in a conversation. My phone had Pegasus on it, that simply was not happening when we were in power. So, there are things that are very obvious and apparent to everybody.
On another question how does India move to kind of better, more peaceful smoother negotiation in the next decades, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- Yeah! So one way of looking at India is that it is a country and another way of looking at it is that it is a negotiation between 1.4 billion people and that negotiation… if you imagine India in terms of numbers, it is probably three times Europe, three times the United States, it is probably got as many languages as Europe does, it has certainly got as many histories as Europe does and that negotiation is a complex negotiation and that negotiation happens… it does not happen out in the streets, it happens through institutions, it happens through the Parliament, it happens through Assemblies, it happens through the courts, it happens through the Election Commission and my worry is that the architecture of that negotiation is being attacked and broken.
You can see sort of the symptoms. Everything has been bypassed on something as fundamental as the currency of the country and that is an example… it is the same way the GST was worked out. So, you can see that the reliance on those institutions is reducing and that to me is very-very dangerous. So, certainly there is a repair work that needs to be done.
The trend you see is massive concentration of wealth and power and if you really look at the BJP and see what is the one big thing that they have done, it is huge concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office and then huge concentration of wealth in the hands of two or three people… and that to me, a country the size of India simply cannot be run like that.
On another question about India-China relations and the reasons behind Beijing antagonizing India in the last few years, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- ‘Antagonize’ is sort of a benign word… I mean, they are sitting on 2,000 square kilometres of our territory. I don’t know… ‘antagonize’ doesn’t quite capture it. I mean, it does not quite capture it and the interesting thing is that when they did it, our Prime Minister said in a meeting with the Opposition where I was there that not a single inch of Indian Territory has been taken… now what message does that send to the Chinese? The Chinese know they are sitting on 2,000 square kilometres of our territory, our military knows it and our Prime Minister says - well, they are not there. So, it encourages them… that is the one aspect of the problem.
As a country, our ethos and our DNA is democratic… there is a book - ‘The Argumentative Indian’ by Mr. Amartya Sen - which says we like to talk… we spend a lot of time talking and discussing things and that’s the way we build consensus because it is very complex… and so we in the Congress are pretty clear that whatever is going to be built, whatever is going to happen has to be in a democratic, in an open structure and that of course… that is not China.
So, we are much more comfortable with the democratic idea, that open idea. Of course, at the same time, they are our neighbors and we are in competition with them and frankly, if we are going to talk about production, we are the biggest game in town and so they see us as a problem. So, my approach is they are offering a vision of productivity, of prosperity… well, we should have a vision of prosperity too and that includes the West and India, but that is missing. So, to me, that is where the work needs to be done.
On another question that how a rapprochement between India or China could happen, Shri Rahul said- I don’t know about rapprochement but I do think that we have to have a vision for production and I don’t think, it is going to look like the Chinese one... it can’t… structurally we can’t do that. So, it has got to be a decentralized one and I think, you are going to have a level of competition between the two countries… there is going to be… on the margins, there is going to be a little bit of tension, a little bit of hostility but I think, it is very important that the lines are clear… I mean, they are sitting on 2,000 square kilometres of our territory. That is the fact.
On another question what would the Congress Government do about that, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- Well! we will have to see when we are there in power, but I think, making things clear and certainly not denying that they are sitting in your territory, to start with.
On another question what would India-led world look like, Shri Rahul Gandhi said-I don’t know… I don’t quite like the word ‘led’… I think, it is a joint effort and I think, there are components that the United States has, there are components that Britain has, there are components that India has and they are valuable. So, I don’t like the idea that this has been led by that person, this is being led by that person. I like the idea of a bridge… so how can we imagine a bridge - a bridge of prosperity between these systems and these ideas where we have a role to play. We bring a lot to the table; you bring a lot to the table and let’s have a conversation about what those things are and how we can put it into practice. I think, the world in the 21st century is connected enough where the word ‘led’ is problematic.
On another question that are you envisioning some multipolar order, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- Of course, the United States is more powerful. So, one cannot deny that the United States is powerful but everybody is required. You can’t in the 21st century say we are going to exclude you. That is not the possibility… so now what would the Indian elements of that bridge look like…. successful in my view... it would invoke the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi. It would be non-violent. It would be sensitive, it would stand for some of those values, which India is very good at doing. It would respect other cultures. It would not be aggressive; it would try to listen to other perspectives. We are going to do that… I mean, in our philosophical structure, we have these ideas. We have this idea called ‘Shunyata’, zero, non-existence, so that can absorb everything. So, those are the types of ideas that I would say that India brings to the table.
On a question that Ukraine is a massive issue overseas, does Congress support the Modi Government’s decision of neutrality, Shri Rahul Gandhi said- I would agree with the foreign policy on that issue and there is also an element of national interest. There are interests, we have to look after our interests, so they are there, but I am against any type of war, I am against any type of violence and the sooner it ends, the better it is.
And as far as the 21stcentury is concerned, a war like Ukraine with the potential for unlimited escalation is just downright dangerous, and we should be very careful that it is playing out in Europe and everybody should try and do their bit to stop it.
On another question about India being wary of criticizing Russia as it relies on it for military equipment & technology, while the West is courting India, Shri Gandhi said- Look, self-interest is important and then you are saying courting, I don’t know, how well are you courting. It depends, it’s up to you, how well you court India.
On another question, could you envision India move away from multi-alignment or non-alignment to kind of hard alliances, Shri Gandhi said- I don’t think about it like that. I think, what is it that we are trying to achieve, start from there, what is our problem? Our problem is we have got a huge population and we need to give them jobs, we need to give them livelihood, we need to give them an imagination and that’s our primary job. Now, we will do whatever it takes to make that happen and the best tool to make it happen, is what we will be doing. We are not going to do anything that will damage the aspirations of our own people. We are not going to do something that is going to damage their employment prospects. So, every country looks at itself, looks at the problems it is trying to solve and then works from there.
On another question that what is the economic & industrial model do you see going forward for India to achieve the sort of rapid growth as well as equitable growth that it needs, Shri Gandhi said- In my walk, I walked past a town called Bellary in Karnataka and I literally walked past it and some people over there said look, this is a jeans-producing center and please come and see what we are doing. So, I spent half a day walking around Bellary and looking at this jeans production that they were doing. It used to employ 5 lakh people, so 5 lakh means half a million. Today, it employs 40,000 people. It is essentially a network of skills… whenever you walk in there, there are people who have a huge amount of skill sitting there and they are doing nothing… and then make that accessible to people. And those centers exist all across India…. there is Bellary, Moradabad… everywhere.
Almost every district in India has a skill base that is profound, but then what do we do… or what is happening today…. Huge concentration of wealth, complete control of the banking system by 3 or 4 large industrialists and the skills just lying there, wasting away.
So, I don’t agree that manufacturing per se is dead. But the level of monopolization that is taking place today is seriously problematic.
On another question, what do you think we in the UK get most wrong about India, what do you see we should know to better understand India, Shri Gandhi said- I am going to give you away the secret. No, it is like the quote I saw in your room… the Gorbachev quote. The Gorbachev quote was… to the fact of… we are at a very important time in history and there are two options - one option is this one and the other option is this one, that is just not how the Indian mind sees the world. The Indian mind just does not see the world in a binary way. So, for the Indian person, (1) We are not at a critical point in history and (2) There are thousands of options standing right in front of us.
That is just how the Indian mind works. And it translates… if you just go to Delhi and you look at the street and you look at the lane… plains, you will see Indian drivers making their way through this thing. They will go this way, they will go that way, now that looks like chaos, but in the 21st century, that chaos is very powerful. But that chaos has to be managed effectively.
Shri Rahul Gandhi added that Okay, I’ll tell you something else. Broadly, there are two philosophies in India. One believes in infinity, that says - you will live forever and the other that says - you don’t exist, concept of ‘Shunyata’ or ‘Anatta’ in Buddhism. And India operates between these two. The idea of non-existence or ‘Anatta’ in Buddhism is the essence of listening. So, if I am sitting here talking to you and I don’t exist, that is absolutely the perfect way to listen to you. What do I mean by ‘I don’t exist’, it means my aspirations don’t exist, it means my fears don’t exist.
So, to me that’s how I see it.
Listening is much more powerful than speaking. There is no comparison between the two, but for some reason, people are convinced that speaking is more powerful. I can predict what you are going to do, if I listen carefully.
On another question that in terms of a clinical approach, what would be your short to medium term plan in terms of projecting what you stand for, what your Party stands for and what you want to achieve with the grassroots, Shri Gandhi said - I think, the walk that we did in the last four and half months… is a powerful model and I think, it brings in a lot of the ingredients of a response to what you are talking about and I think, it works for most of the Opposition in India, it is acceptable to most of the Opposition in India.
So, reaching out to the people in interesting ways and making sure that you are having a direct connect with people and building a new imagination, I think, is central to fighting the BJP. Also, don’t underestimate the resistance. Authoritarian people like to demonstrate how powerful they are and how strong they are… the resistance in India is also very strong, very powerful and can do wonders!
But, if we step back from the BJP-Congress conversation, what’s actually happening is a huge transition in India, huge migration of people and India is now searching for a new model with which to engage with its people and rest of the world and what is pretty clear is… that the BJP model is not it, because it is creating too much turbulence, too much resistance. So, the real challenge the people like me and other leaders in the Opposition have… is what that thing looks like.
On another question that you spoke about democracy in trouble, so what the Congress Party is planning to do about this, and what would you like London, Paris, Berlin & all the other capitals… the governments and the people… to do about this, Shri Gandhi said- Look, first of all, this is our problem, it is an internal problem and it is Indian problem and the solution is going to come from inside, it is not going to come from outside. However, the scale of Indian democracy means that democracy in India is a global public good, it impacts way further than our boundaries.
If Indian democracy collapses in my view, democracy on the planet suffers a very serious, possibly a fatal blow. So, it is important for you too. It is not just important for us. We will deal with our problem, but you must be aware that this problem is going to play out at a global scale, it is not just going to play out in India and what you do about it… is of course up to you, but you must be aware that in what is happening in India, the idea of a democratic model is being attacked and threatened.
On another question that does Mr. Gandhi agree that dynastic politics has impeded growth of democracy in South Asia… in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Shri Gandhi said- I think, impeded the growth of Politics? (Anchor replied - democracy in South Asia.) No, I think, the structures that are playing out and impeding democracy are much more structural and way beyond dynastic politics, I mean.
On another question that you have said that this government doesn’t quite understand the nature of the risk that China poses, so what in your estimation is exactly the nature of that risk and fundamentally what are these guys not getting, Shri Gandhi said- If you look at what has happened in Ukraine, the basic principle that has been applied in Ukraine is… that the Russians have told the Ukrainians that we do not accept the relationship you have with Europe and America and if you do not change this relationship, we will change your territory, we will challenge your territorial integrity. In my view, that is what is happening on the borders of my country. What China is threatening…China does not want us to have a relationship with the United States and it is threatening us by saying- if you continue to have this relationship with the United States, we will take action and that’s why they have got troops in Ladakh and that’s why they have got troops in Arunachal Pradesh.
So, in my view, the basic idea behind the troops in Arunachal and Ladakh is similar to what is happening in Ukraine. I mentioned this to the Foreign Minister, he completely disagrees with me and he thinks… this is a ludicrous idea. It is fine, we have a difference of opinion.
On another question that ‘there are more than 20 million overseas Indians in the world, how can they contribute in making Indian democracy stronger’, Shri Gandhi said- I like your energy. It is very important and it goes to the point of the resistance. You see the resistance is sitting here. I meant that the battle for democratic institutions of India is frankly India’s responsibility and no one else’s and it is something that we are doing, but you, of course, are Indian, so it is your responsibility as well and you are part of that discussion. I think when you express yourself, I think, what you said about your father being in the RSS and about him not recognizing our country… in this conversation itself is a very powerful thing. Because for me to say…people might feel… he is fighting the RSS, he is fighting the BJP, he might be biased. But for you to say it… it has a totally different impact.
So, by expressing yourself and by making your position clear, you are already helping in a big way. I think, by telling people the values that you stand for, the values that are Indian and that you protect by telling everybody in the rest of the world that India needs to go back to those values, you are doing this service. So, thank you!
On another question that do you think that with Shri M. Kharge as a Party President, you are well equipped to defeat BJP in the next elections, Shri Gandhi said - Mr. Kharge was elected as President in an election that took place in the Congress Party and he is the President of the Congress Party. We are all working together to fight the BJP and I am extremely confident in Mr. Kharge’s capabilities and his expertise. I don’t know if you know his history. Do you know his history? He has been a Congress worker for many-many years and he has come up the ranks and he is an extremely capable, dynamic person. So, I am very confident in his leadership.
On another question that is there any changes that you want to introduce in Indian foreign policy, Shri Gandhi said- As I said, the principle of foreign policy is, unfortunately, self-interest and any Indian government would pay attention to that. We were a rural country and we are making a transition into an urban country and this transition has a huge amount of energy, potential for violence, but also potential for prosperity, potential for transformation and we are trying to manage this energy as it is moving.
If you look at our policies… the UPA policies... they were all about trying to manage this transition from a rural to an urban, connected country. So, our foreign policy will follow that idea, our foreign policy will reflect that. What would we like to do - we would like to build a society that is productive, a society that allows our people to have an imagination, to live happily, to be educated, to have a certain amount of healthcare. So, that is what our imagination is and our foreign policy will align with that.
On another question that what is your vision on decarbonizing India when China controls so much of the supply chain for renewable energy, Shri Gandhi said- See, on the climate change issue… interesting thing I noticed in the walk was that pretty much everywhere we went, they were speaking about climate change, but they were speaking about it locally. So, they were saying - look, it is terribly polluted, the water is very bad, it has got fluoride in it… but they were not making the connection between their local problem and the global problem. So, I was thinking that it is important in India that we start to push the idea that this local problem is connected to the global problem. So, that is one aspect of the Yatra that came up.
On what is the vision for carbon… these things are not things that one person visualizes and suddenly says - this is my vision for carbon. I mean, that would be insanity. The way to do it is… you have a conversation with people, you have conversation with stakeholders, and you say - okay, so what is the best way forward… and that is an evolving conversation. Lot of people… sort of… they think that leadership is about sitting there and just coming up with these ideas. It doesn’t work like that...it is about talking to people, understanding what the best, most optimal outcome is and heading slowly in that direction.
On another question that how do your views or Congress’s views differ from BJP’s on Pakistan and if there is any difference, Shri Gandhi said- My personal view is that it is important that we have good relations with everybody around us, but that also depends on the actions of the Pakistanis. If the Pakistanis are promoting terrorism in India, that becomes very difficult to do and that does happen.
On a question that as someone who has a possibility of becoming the future Prime Minister of India, what actionable plans would you undertake… is there an incident that touched you in the Yatra and you would like to change or improve, Shri Gandhi said- In the walk, a lot of women came up to me and quite a few of the women spoke about violence that had been done to them and in one of the cases… actually in many of the cases… but in one particular case… I won’t go into the details but in one of the cases, I asked the girl -… she had been attacked, she had been molested, raped… and I asked her- listen, should we call the police and she said- no, don’t call the police, I don’t want you to call the police and I said- why don’t you want me to call the police, you have come here, you have told me this and now you don’t want me to call the police and she said- yes, I don’t want you to call the police, because… then I will be shamed.
So, to me, that was a very striking thing that here is this young girl, who suffered this violence against her and now, she cannot act on that violence, because she is scared that she will be shamed. So, I was thinking to myself - this poor girl is now going to live the rest of her life, never telling anybody this and it is going to multiply the pain of what happened to her.
So, that is something I think, I would like to change… that the level of violence against women reduces and particularly this idea… that of shame, which is completely a ridiculous idea, is changed.