Rahul Gandhi speaking at the even hosted by the Indian Journalists Association
Rahul Gandhi speaking at the even hosted by the Indian Journalists Association

by Amit Roy

CONGRESS party president Rahul Gandhi laid down the battle grounds in next year’s general election in India during a two-day visit to Britain last week.

It would be between Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the “hatred-filled ideology of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh)” on the one hand and the combined forces of Congress and the rest of the opposition on the other, he said.

On UK-India relations, he said that despite some current differences over visas and other issues, “we are tied together by time, by history and you can’t just bypass that”.

Rahul succeeded his mother, Sonia Gandhi, as Congress party president in December last year.

If the BJP is defeated in next year’s general election – still a big if – and Congress emerges as the largest party in the Lok Sabha
(the lower house of parliament), 48-year-old Rahul would stand a good chance of being elected India’s next prime minister.

Modi, who filled Wembley Stadium when he came to London in November 2015, enjoys strong support among sections of Britain’s 2.5 million strong Indian-origin population. But UK Indians do not have the vote.

What was important was how Rahul’s first public appearances in the UK – live streamed in most cases – would affect his standing in India.

“We are going back to the old India,” he said. “We have identified the battle taking place. The line is very clear. On the one side
is the hatred-filled ideology of the RSS – and all the opposition on the other. They will feel the combined might of the opposition.”

By “old India”, he meant “India before 2014”, when Modi, thrice elected chief minister of Gujarat, became prime minister. “I do not mean economically the India of the past – I do not mean that at all.”

Rahul is no stranger to the UK – he spent a year doing an MPhil at Trinity College, Cambridge. But previously he always kept a low profile.

This time in two hectic days, after arriving from Germany, he participated in a discussion at the International Institute of Strategic Studies; addressed a meeting in the Commons; and was warmly received by some 400 students at the London School of Economics; and spoke at a Congress Party rally.

Perhaps most important of all, he answered questions at a working lunch hosted by the Indian Journalists’ Association (IJA).

At a symposium attended by 200 medical professionals at the Royal College of Medicine, he revealed he was looking at the NHS with a view to introducing “a more inclusive, affordable and modern Indian healthcare system”.

“Healthcare… is something that can be the next revolution in India,” he summed up.

The Commons meeting in the Grand Committee Room was organised by the Indian Overseas Congress, an organisation that was once very active but has fallen into disrepair in recent years.

Rahul was received by the veteran Labour MP Keith Vaz. Present were Keith Vaz’s sister, Valerie Vaz, shadow leader of the Commons; and two other Labour MPs, Seema Malhotra and Virendra Sharma.

The latter who is MP for Ealing Southall, a constituency with a heavy concentration of Indians, won loud applause for telling Rahul: “We see you as a future PM.”

Other Labour party MPs whom he met separately included Barry Gardiner, shadow secretary for international trade; Sir Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary; Gareth Thomas, shadow foreign minister; Stephen Pound, shadow minister for northern Ireland; and Preet Gill, shadow international development minister. He also met Rajesh Agarwal, a deputy mayor of London.

Rahul expressed concern about how the visa issue was affecting Indian students and professionals. He stressed that India had made “a huge intellectual investment in the UK” and that the contribution of Indian doctors and nurses to the NHS was “immense”.

In the packed lecture theatre in the LSE’s New Academic Building, he attracted students from the LSE, Oxford, his alma mater Cambridge (“I love Cambridge”), Warwick, Manchester, Nottingham, Sussex and other universities in London.

The LSE’s chair of council, Dame Shirley Pearce, who said the institution had a long tradition of encouraging “difficult debates”, thanked Rahul at the end of the 80 minute session for a “fabulous unscripted discussion”.

The event was organised jointly by the National Indian Students’ Alumni Union UK and the LSE’s South Asia Centre, whose director, Dr Mukulika Banerjee, conducted the discussion with Rahul.

The British government will be pleased that Rahul gave an optimistic assessment of Indo-British relations.

When IJA president Ashis Ray claimed that bilateral relations “had gone down the tube” because of the visa and other issues, Rahul’s response was both mature and thoughtful.

“I would not use such a stung word as relationship is destroyed,” he replied.

“I don’t so. I think the United Kingdom and India have a historical relationship. It’s much deeper than Brexit or one or two years of instability. I think there is a lot of foundational stuff that we can do.

“I think we are tied together by time, by history and you can’t just bypass that. So the way forward, of course, is to talk, to listen, to understand what exactly it is that the United Kingdom needs. (And) for them to understand what exactly we need.

“There are some issues – students’ visas. We would like students to be allowed here; they have their issues. But these are not things that break a relationship like our relationship. You have to have a longer term view and perspective.”

He taunted Modi by suggesting the prime minister would never expose himself by accepting an invitation from the IJA – as he had done although he knew he was taking a “risk”, especially as the question and answer session was being live streamed. That had also been the case at the LSE.

It was pointed out to Rahul that among BJP ministers, Nitin Gadkari and Arun Jaitley, had taken up IJA invitations but so far Modi had not.

Rahul revealed some of the issues Congress is likely to highlight during the general election campaign. One is the plight of farmers, some of whom have been driven by despair to suicide – “farmers are screaming”.

Another is the high rate of unemployment among young people. “There is a full blown crisis in India and it’s called the jobs crisis,” he said.

On corruption, he intends highlighting how the contract to build the French fighter aircraft, the Rafale, was taken away from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and awarded to the businessman Anil Ambani, a Modi supporter. The latter has denied any wrongdoing.