Eye on polls: Rahul woos diaspora in US
Gandhi said the Indian freedom struggle began in South Africa, and Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Subas Chandra Bose, and BR Ambedkar were all NRIs who made a difference
New York India is witnessing a battle between those who believe in Mahatma Gandhi and those who believe in Nathuram Godse, those who look only in the rear view mirror and blame the Congress for the past and those who want to discuss the issues of the future, and those who believe in love and compassion and those who believe in hatred and violence, Rahul Gandhi has said.
Speaking at a public meeting in New York’s Javits Centre, on the corner of 11th avenue and 36th street on Manhattan’s west side, to a 3,000-strong crowd, on Sunday evening (early Monday morning IST), Gandhi also told the diaspora that the Indian freedom struggle began in South Africa, and Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Subas Chandra Bose, and BR Ambedkar were all non-resident Indians (NRIs) who made a difference. That, he said, is what he expected from Indians in America.
Wrapping up his six-day US visit with a public speech to members of the diaspora, many of them sympathetic or associated with the Congress from New York and New Jersey, Gandhi said, “There is a fight going on back home between two ideologies, one that we represent, and the other that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) represents. The simplest way to describe this fight is you have Mahatma Gandhi versus Nathuram Godse.”
On one side, Gandhi said was “a brave man, an NRI like you, the most impactful NRI that India has had in many many years, a humble man, a simple man who believed in India, propagated non-violence and searched for the truth”. And on the other side, Gandhi claimed, was Godse — “violent, angry, unable to face the reality of his own life”.
The electoral subtext of the meeting was visible, as Congress leaders of different states travelled to New York to mobilise the diaspora of their respective states. The crowd, adorning Congress flags and Rahul Gandhi’s posters, waited for over two-and-a-half hours to hear the Congress leader.
Gandhi began his speech by saying that the visit to the US had been “fantastic” because he had met the diaspora and seen them representing the country with humility and talent. “You didn’t come here arrogantly. You came here with limited means and built something wonderful. All of you have different journeys and struggles, none more or less important than the other.” The reason, Gandhi said, the diaspora had succeeded was because it respected the people, history and customs of the US and embraced them. “That is the heart of your success, I commend and respect and honour you for that.”
Building on the theme of how India is witnessing a Gandhi versus Godse battle, the Congress leader said that the Mahatma was modern and open-minded, while Godse spoke only of the past, never of the future and was a coward.
“Back home, we have a problem. The BJP and RSS are incapable of looking at the future. You ask then anything, they look at the back. Ask then about the train accident, and they will say Congress did this 50 years ago. Ask them about the removal of periodic tables and evolution from textbooks and they will say Congress did this 60 years ago.” Gandhi said if one just looked into the rearview mirror while driving, there would be one accident after another. “That is the phenomena of Narendra Modiji. He looks only in the rearview mirror and then doesn’t understand why the car is crashing.”
Gandhi said that one reason he had come to the US was because he believed that to build an India where a majority of the young were employed, they had to think about the bridge between India and the US. “What does our partnership focus on? How do we compete with the challenge the Chinese have placed on the table? What is our view on the revolution in mobility, data and connectivity and the transformations taking place in the energy systems of the world?”
As a group of pro-Khalistani protesters barged into the hall, Gandhi greeted them and said that was the Congress’s power, of not being violent, aggressive or nasty. He then spoke about the challenges to the democratic structure in India and the responsibility on everyone to defend the Constitution and democracy. “To be nasty, arrogant, violent — these are not Indian values. There is a new fashion that to express Indianness, you have to be hateful, abusive, beat people. No. No. That’s not Indianness. We refuse to accept that as Indian,” Gandhi said.
The electoral subtext
The event was held with a clear eye on the upcoming state assembly elections, particularly Telangana. Telugu-speakers constitute the biggest Indian diaspora group in the US, with Telangana president Revanth Reddy, who was present, claiming that there are close to 650,000 Indians from the state in the US.
“Over 50% of the audience today was from Telangana and they came from different parts of the US,” said Reddy, mobbed by his supporters as he was walking out after the event. Asked if the event was meant to mobilise the state’s diaspora for the elections, Reddy said that the idea was to allow people in the US, with roots in the state, an opportunity to connect with Gandhi after the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the Karnataka victory.
Reddy, however, added that Telugu Desam Party ruled united Andhra for ten years between 1994 and 2004, the Congress ruled the state from 2004 and 2014, and the recently-renamed Bharatiya Rastriya Samiti had ruled Telangana from 2014 to 2023. “No one thought when they were ruling that they could be voted out. But it happened. This time, the Congress will come back in the state.”
A Congress diaspora figure from the state, who requested anonymity, said, “We want people associated with the party here to give time, go back and influence their families and villages. Their impact is very strong.” He acknowledged that another motive was fund-raising. “But money is not the main criteria. If they can give time, we will be satisfied.”
Besides Reddy, member of Parliament from Haryana, Deepender Singh Hooda, Punjab Congress chief Amarinder Singh Raja, senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar, and other leaders of the Indian Overseas Congress (IOC) were present at the public meeting.
Many leaders who spoke before Gandhi categorically asked the audience to support the party for the 2024 elections and make Rahul Gandhi, in the words of IOC President Mohinder Singh Gilzian, the next PM of India.
Outlining the ways in which the Congress-leaning diaspora could help, IOC chairman Sam Pitroda said, “Spread our message. Talk to your families and community. I often say that for a selfie with Rahul Gandhi, get ten votes. Help the party. Support a local candidate. Go back and work with the candidate. Refine their campaign. The next election will decide the destiny of India.”
Among the 3000 or so people who attended the event, there was a higher representation from southern states, but also Punjab and Haryana in terms of geographies, and from Muslim, Christian and Dalit organisations.
Constellation of supporters
Satinath Chaudhary, 81, came to the US in 1965. After having grown up in Patna and studied at IIT-Kharagpur, Chaudhary went to graduate school in the US, completed a PhD in electronic physics, and began teaching computer science. But he closely follows Indian politics back home and said he had come to support the candidate best positioned to defeat Narendra Modi in 2024.
“I don’t like anything about the BJP. It is controlled by upper castes, and supported by those who hate reservations,” Chaudhary, who is Dalit, said. When asked how was it that Dalits then appeared to support the BJP in large numbers, “That’s because the BJP has control over institutions and media and due to its propaganda. The Congress too is dominated by upper castes but it is not as regressive. And it seems that Mallikarjun Kharge has convinced Rahul that upper castes have migrated to the BJP. That’s why I like his support for the caste census.”
Another person who attended the event was Chitralekha, a business analyst at a major bank in New Jersey. She grew up near Madurai in Tamil Nadu and while she didn’t have an association with the Congress, she had come to listen to Gandhi. “Rajiv Gandhi introduced computer education and the vision of technology to India. That meant that those from lower middle classes like me could study computers in our small towns. And that is why I support the Congress and Rajiv’s son.”
She claimed that the BJP had only replicated the earlier Congress-led government programmes, was a master of “fake news” and had taken the country backward. “But I can see that the Congress organisation is weak. I came to know of this event and the entry details only yesterday.”
Rohit Karupati’s family in Andhra Pradesh was traditionally associated with the Congress. Now a software engineer in New Jersey, he had come to listen to Gandhi with his brother, who had travelled from Florida.
Karupati said that he felt there was a fight after Bharat Jodo Yatra and had come to listen to Gandhi. “I want to know what changes he can bring to repair the social fabric in India. The BJP has destroyed it completely. We read the news and get a culture shock. This is not the India we grew up in.”