Shri Rahul Gandhi, former Congress President, interacted with the audience at the Stanford University (USA) on June 01, 2023.
Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to come and speak to you. I have heard a lot about your institution. I spent some time in one of your competitors. It is an honour for me to be here. I have been asked to speak about ‘Global transition and how the world is changing’ and also how one should act through that change… how one should think about acting through the turbulence that is obviously going to come.
I heard in the introduction that I was a Member of Parliament until a few months ago. I don’t think when I joined politics in 2004, I ever imagined what I see going on in our country. It was way outside anything that I had ever imagined… to be the first person to get a full criminal sentence on defamation, to get the maximum sentence to be disqualified from Parliament. I didn’t imagine that something like this was possible. But then I think it has actually given me a huge opportunity, probably much bigger than the opportunity I would have sitting in the Parliament… that is just the way politics works.
I think the drama started really about 6 months ago. We were struggling…the entire opposition is struggling in India… huge financial dominance, institutional capture… we were struggling in the democratic fight in our country and we decided… none of the systems are working… democracy isn’t just about an Opposition party; it’s about a set of institutions that support the Opposition parties. Those institutions were either captured, certainly were not playing the role they are supposed to play. And so we decided to do something quite strange. We just decided to walk across the country and we never imagined for a second what would happen when we walked across the country… what would happen not just politically, not in terms of the type of response we got, but what would happen to us when we walk across our country… all of us. There was… we started with about 125 people and it fundamentally transformed the way we think about our country, about our people, about politics, about what is important.
A lot of people asked me - what’s the lesson you have learnt from this? And for a long time, I couldn’t quite say what it was… I couldn’t answer. I would say, you know, I have picked up so much information overload… I can’t really tell you what this has done. It was the most beautiful experience of my life by far. It was very painful… I had a knee problem… it was one of those things. You get up and you say- okay, we are going to walk 4,000 kilometers… at some level, a crazy thing to even conceptualise. I thought that would be… I am reasonably fit, I thought it shouldn’t be too difficult. I calculated it in my mind, I said- Well, what is it going to be… it is going to be 25 kilometers a day, no big deal and then I had a knee problem and then the whole thing… the way life works… everything just transformed itself.
We met what I would best describe as the soul of our country and very quickly, in a week or 10 days, a silence descended on us. We couldn’t speak. We went from trying to explain things to people - this is why agriculture isn’t working, this is how you should think about education, this is how the healthcare system should look, this is what we should be doing and, suddenly, we all went silent. And we went silent because we came into contact with an intelligence that we had never seen… that we had never even conceptualised could exist.
Farmers, who, you would say… many people would say, don’t have an education and then who were explaining things to us in a way that we just turned silent and then we saw this with farmers, with labourers, with small businessman, everybody, and so the silence descended on us and we just stopped talking and started listening and we heard tales of immense suffering. I can think immediately… I thought about one where… which to me embodies the spirit of my country, our country. I was walking and a young man came, he started walking with me and I put my arm on his shoulder and suddenly I realised he didn’t have arms. So, he had no arms and I tried to make him a bit comfortable. I didn’t want him to feel that I know you don’t have arms. He was not too bothered and we started talking and I asked him- Listen, what do you do? And he looked at me and said - I am a mechanic. The immediate thing in my mind was… he is lying, how can he be a mechanic? He doesn’t have arms, it’s impossible. So I said, well, I didn’t want to be direct, I didn’t want to say you are lying. I said- what cars do you repair? He says- I don’t repair cars, I repair motorcycles. So, I said - Oh yeah? What motorcycles do you repair and he started listing all the motorcycles. So, I said - can I come and see what you do and he said- yeah, and then he proceeded to take us and show us how he serviced a motorcycle with his feet. It’s the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my life. He took apart the entire engine with his feet and he put the entire engine back together with his feet. I can’t do it with my hands.
So, we saw these types of things happening and we saw clearly the disconnect between our politics and our people. And that disconnect is visible in the United States, it’s visible in the rest of the world. There is a huge divide between the people and politics. Politics is talking about something else; people are talking about something else. We experienced this multiple times.
As I was walking through this, I kept thinking, something puzzled me, what I couldn’t understand is that while we were walking, we had no force. Force was completely on the other side. The other side had police, they had the institutions, they had the media, they had social media, had everything. And here was this group of people… in a few weeks, it became thousands and then millions who were just walking and all the force at the disposal of the government of India could do nothing. And the more they tried to apply force, the less it worked and so, this puzzled me. I was like, how come they have all the force, they have all the systems and nothing is happening. Why, for example, are they just not physically stopping us. And this was a question that just kept rotating in my mind. I am like… why is it that they have the force, but they don’t have power. And I realised that force and power are two completely different things.
Most people, politicians in particular, confuse force and power, they think they are the same thing; they are not the same thing, they are completely different things. Power is an act of imagination. Power is in the present. It is not linear and power comes when you go close to the truth. The reason we could not be stopped by force is because we were weaving around near the truth. And what was really interesting to me was, it didn’t matter how much force the other side had. They simply could not transform that force into power and they kept saying to us, people asked us, so when are you going to stop? We were like, we are not going to stop, we are going all the way to Kashmir. (People said) no, you are not going to be able to go to Kashmir. They told me in Kashmir that look, if you walk the last 4 days, you are going to get killed… they are going to throw hand grenades on you. I was like, fine, no problem, let them do it. I want to see the person who throws a hand grenade at me. And the security guys, the people from the establishment there, I could see on their face, they just could not understand what I was saying. So, this distinction in your life, in your work is very important. It doesn’t matter how much force the other person has; you can still have power and it is determined by how close you are and how precise you are with regards to the truth.
Now, you can see these moments, mine was a very small one. You can see these moments of power versus truth in history… big ones. For example, my leader Mahatma Gandhi fought the entire British empire. He had no force. They had all the force, all the structures, the army, everything… it didn’t matter. The declaration of Independence here in the United States… again a moment of power, a moment of truth. It doesn’t matter how much force the other person has.
So, why am I telling you this, why am I making this distinction between power and force, and what does it have to do with the transition that we are facing. Well, the transition we are facing… there are three transitions - there is a revolution in mobility, there is a revolution in the energy system and there is a revolution in connectivity, what we call AI and data. These are the three revolutions that are taking place and they are going to affect everything.
The last time we had a similar transition - a transition of energy, a transition of mobility, we had two world wars. It’s in times like that… of great uncertainty, of turbulence… that you need acts of imagination. While I was coming here to Stanford University, I was thinking about it. All the work that you do, a lot of the work that you do… Robotics, AI… where was the moment of power? The moment of power was when President Kennedy said- let’s go to the moon. That was not an act of force, that was an act of imagination. And from that, a lot of the work you do has emerged, evolved. And that’s the type of relationship the United States and India should be thinking about, a relationship that’s based on the true reality of our people. We know in India a lot about the reality of our people, all of you know. You live in a great country. You know the levels of poverty that we have. You also know the amazing amount of skills that we have. The United States has the world’s cutting-edge technology and we already have a bridge between us. It’s important that this bridge is not simply a bridge based on force, but it’s a bridge based on the reality of our people, on an understanding of the realities of both our people.
India has some huge advantages. In a data-centric world, we have one of the largest pools of data. You, over here, are a testament, many of you, to our skill in technology, in software. There are many more young people like you back home, who don’t have the opportunity you had, who could augment our capability. So, that’s what I wanted to leave you with.
I think there are difficult times but there are also times of opportunity. I think there are times when acts of imagination, as I called it acts of true power, will resonate and can transform the way we think of ourselves. I am looking forward to answering some of your questions.