Buoyed by its freshly-minted electoral success in the Karnataka Assembly elections, Rahul Gandhi landed in the United States earlier last week. Billed as “Mohabbat Ki Dukan” (a shop for love), Mr Gandhi’s week-long tour included a few diaspora events, talks at Stanford University in California, a closed-door event to discuss US-India relations at Hudson Institute, and a Q&A at the National Press Club at Washington, DC.
However, a cursory look at Mr Gandhi’s statements at these engagements reveals a design at demeaning and denigrating India and India’s institutions under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It also exposes Mr Gandhi and his party to charges of linkage with known anti-India and anti-Hindu elements operating in foreign lands.
The 53-year-old son of the former Indian National Congress president Sonia Gandhi is attempting to revive the political fortunes of the Indian National Congress (Congress Party). Once an umbrella organization instrumental in India’s fight against British colonial rule, the Congress Party has undergone several splits and mutations. It became a family fiefdom of the Nehru-Gandhi family soon after India’s Independence, and it currently presents a pale shadow of its glorious past. Nine years ago, it lost power to PM Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
RAHUL’S ‘INSULT INDIA’ ENDEAVOURS
At one of Mr Gandhi’s events, a student at Stanford University asked the following question: “We hardly ever see the opposition seeking international support outside the foreign ministry.” To this, the anchor added: “You’ve gone rogue.”
This exchange sums up Mr Gandhi’s foreign trips. “All foreign trips that Rahul Gandhi undertakes end up becoming insult India endeavours,” said the BJP leader and the Minister for Information and Broadcasting in PM Modi’s cabinet, Anurag Thakur. “Rahul Gandhi works consistently to undermine India’s rising global image,” Thakur added.
Mr Gandhi’s speeches on foreign soil follow a recurring theme. His presentations rest on a set of tautologies—unsubstantiated claims about the throttling of freedom of speech, degradation of democratic institutions, economic deprivation, condition of the minorities, etc. Mr Gandhi even solicits help from foreign governments and agencies. For instance, in his recent London event, Mr Gandhi said: “While India is fighting that battle [for democracy], US and Europe are not doing enough to restore democracy in India.” Some of Mr Gandhi’s tour organizers have been blatantly involved in activities with national security implications. Some of these organizations have also lobbied against India with the US government. This newspaper recently published a detailed report on this topic.
TWITTER FILES 17 AND STANFORD UNIVERSITY
Even Mr Gandhi’s choice of Stanford University for his recent event raised several eyebrows. “For those following the Biden State Dept’s intrigues to unseat the Modi gov’t in India, clear pick Rahul Gandhi is doing a US tour calling for the US to intervene in India’s democracy. His first stop? Stanford U. Or the network that mass flagged pro-Modi accounts in Twitter Files 17,” tweeted Mike Benz. Benz is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Communication and Information Technology at the US State Department. He is also the Executive Director of the Foundation for Freedom Online, a free speech watchdog.
California-based Stanford University’s Internet Observatory Cyber Policy Center is part of the US taxpayer-funded Election Integrity Partnership (EIP). EIP is a coalition of research entities in the “mis- and disinformation” field. In June of 2021, one of these entities—DFRLab (Digital Forensic Research Lab) of the US think tank Atlantic Council—provided a dataset of about 40,000 Twitter users to Twitter’s Trust and Safety team.
The DFRLab alleged that those 40,000 Twitter users, many US citizens, were “Hindu nationalists” and “paid employees and possibly volunteers” of India’s PM Narendra Modi’s BJP. They also suggested these accounts be taken down. A radical leftwing Indian news portal opposed to Mr Modi’s government had provided that dataset of Twitter users to DFRLab. These pages carried a detailed report on this topic by this author.
In a series of tweets, Benz claimed that the Stanford Internet Observatory is “a hivemind of foreign policy spooks bent on using internet censorship to exercise control over populist political movements around the world.”
In an exclusive conversation with this author, Benz said, “Stanford [University] works closely with US national security state to engineer censorship to silence influential populist voices. Stanford had partnered with censorship firms who led an effort to silence populist groups on the internet in India.” The Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives is investigating Stanford University’s activities. The university is reportedly resisting a subpoena from the Committee.
CONGRESS AND FREE SPEECH
Mr Gandhi frequently claims that freedom of the press and speech is throttled in India under Mr Modi. While such broad claims are without merit, Mr Gandhi also forgets that his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru introduced the First Amendment Act (1951) to India’s Constitution, limiting freedom of speech and expression. This Act has been used by many successive governments, including Jawaharlal Nehru, to ban books and imprison journalists and ordinary citizens for criticizing politicians.
Famous poet Majrooh Sultanpuri was jailed for reciting a poem against Mr Gandhi’s great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru at a meeting in Mumbai. Mr Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi’s government, had banned renowned singer Kishore Kumar’s songs during the Emergency.
CONGRESS, EMERGENCY, AND PRESS FREEDOM
Mr Gandhi’s grandmother Indira Gandhi imposed a 21-month-long Emergency on India. The Emergency gave Mrs Gandhi the power to rule by decree. Mrs Gandhi cancelled elections, curtailed civil liberties, and jailed thousands of journalists and political opponents. Many opposition leaders were forced into exile.
The Emergency-time Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) gave the authorities the power to arrest anyone without a warrant and a recourse to judicial review. The Indira Gandhi government implemented a policy of forced sterilization of millions (6.2 million in the first year itself) of men.
Mr Gandhi’s father, Rajiv Gandhi, banned Salman Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses. India was the first country to ban the book. Rajiv Gandhi’s government passed the Defamation Bill (1988) to curtail the freedom of the press severely. Though Rajiv Gandhi had to beat a hasty retreat to withdraw the Bill after a nationwide outrage and protests, he used the brute force of his super parliamentary majority (415/543 Lok Sabha seats) to ram the Bill through Parliament. The Bill was introduced on 29 August 1988 and passed the next day.
Rajiv Gandhi’s government also reversed the judgement of India’s Supreme Court to please India’s Muslim fundamentalists. In the Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum (the Shah Bano) case, the Supreme Court of India delivered a judgement (1985) favouring maintenance given to an aggrieved divorced Muslim woman, Shah Bano Begum. The Rajiv Gandhi government enacted a law providing the right to maintenance to women’s relatives, the Waqf Board—the Islamic charitable fund—nullifying the Supreme Court verdict.
Rahul Gandhi’s attempt to project himself and his Party as the protectors of minorities in India isquestionable. Even before India’s Independence, mistrust between the Congress Party and the larger subcontinental Muslim population resulted in the founding of the All India Muslim League (1906) and the eventual partition of India along religious lines. Nearly two million people lost their lives during that Partition. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Mr Gandhi called the present League a “secular” organization in one of his recent interactions.
The history of Congress Party rule in India is dotted with dozens of deadly communal riots—Nellie, Assam, massacre of 1983, Delhi pogrom of 1984 in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards, and Bhagalpur, Bihar, riots of 1989, etc., just to name a few.
The minority Muslim community was affected by the forced sterilization program of the Congress Party during the Emergency. In April 1976, the government of Mrs Gandhi set up a forced sterilization clinic by the Turkman Gate near Old Delhi’s historic Jama Masjid. A public protest ensued, and police resorted to firing. Many more were also reportedly run over by the bulldozers.
Members of the Indian diaspora have an ineffable feeling of affinity towards India. Like any diaspora group, most Indians’ personal and collective identity conflation is closely linked to a shared sense of vulnerabilities and anxieties concerning India’s political, social, and economic well-being.
There is also a sense of belonging to the sacred land of Bharat—the land that “bears traces of gods and the footprints of heroes. Every place has its own story, and conversely, every story in the vast storehouse of myth and legend has its place” (Diana Eck writes in her ‘India: A Sacred Geography).
Rahul Gandhi’s presentation of India conflicts with reality. He denies India’s economic progress, infrastructure development, etc., in the past nine years. Since 2014, according to a Morgan Stanley report, “India has gained a position in the world order with significant positive consequences for the macro and market outlook.” With the current pace, India’s per capita income is expected to double—USD 2,200 to USD 5,200—by 2032.
Even Mr Modi’s fiercest critics, such as Fareed Zakaria, had to acknowledge India’s economic strides despite the Covid pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war.
One of the features of Mr Gandhi’s recent foreign trips has been his interaction with the students and faculty of the elite universities. Mr Gandhi looks and acts professorial at these events as he tackles “serious” national and international questions. This longing for relevance stems from the fact that Mr Gandhi, domestically, is not taken seriously by everyday folks. He is often called Pappu (not brilliant) due to his shallow understanding of India’s social, economic, political, and cultural issues. His gaff-filled speeches and answers have turned Mr Gandhi into the butt of jokes and WhatsApp memes. These university events are attempts at gravitas that are then used to project an image of a serious, intellectually sharp political personality.
Mr Gandhi’s behaviour abroad should be a grave concern for Indians. A Rahul Gandhi playing to the tune of known India-baiters is dangerous for India’s social, political, and economic well-being.
Author is a recipient of the San Francisco Press Club’s Journalistic Excellence Award in 2021 and 2022.