Rahul Gandhi is aam aadmi now
Traveling on a ordinary passport after his contentious expulsion from the Indian Parliament in March, former Congress Party MP Rahul Gandhi kicked off his week-long “mohabbat ki dukaan” tour of the U.S., with a meet-and-greet of the Indian diaspora, first at UC Santa Cruz’s Silicon Valley campus, and then at the Santa Clara Marriott on May 30, where he emphasized his message of unity and promised that the Women’s Reservation Bill would pass if his party came to power.
Gandhi’s trip comes on the heels of an Indian National Congress election win in the southern state of Karnataka, his own 146-day Bharat Jodo Yatra in which he travelled over 2,500 miles of the country by foot, and ahead of the upcoming general elections in 2024.
Gandhi’s U.S. itinerary includes talks at Stanford University and the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He is expected to engage with prominent business leaders, American lawmakers and the Indian diaspora in California, Washington D.C., and New York.
On unity and peace
Entering the Santa Clara Marriott auditorium to dhol beats and a cheering crowd, Gandhi was greeted with a baaraat and an aarti performed by the Women Empowerment Telugu Association (WETA).
Waiting in line to enter the event organized by the Indian Overseas Congress (IOC), was Raju Rajagopal, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, who wanted to hear Gandhi speak because of the way he is handling the “crisis that’s facing India under the current government.”
Gandhi does it “in a very polished way in terms of how you respond to violence with peace and power,” said Rajagopal. “He has a new message that he’s bringing about ordinary people’s lives, which he learned from Bharat Jodo Yatra.”
Before introducing Gandhi, IOC chairperson Sam Pitroda mentioned his upbringing in a small tribal village in Orissa. “Right in front of my house was a Muslim, on left was Jain, on right was Sardarji, in the back was tribal Oriya. And we all lived together quite happily,” he said. “This is what is being threatened in India now,” alleged Pitroda.
The yatra taught me to listen
“You cannot understand anything if you’re not ready to listen,” said Gandhi addressing the audience. “The biggest lesson I learned from Bharat Jodo Yatra [is] that there is something to learn from everybody.”
Joking about the arduousness of the padayatra, Gandhi said, “After 5 to 6 days, we realized that actually walking 4,000 kilometers is not an easy thing.” But after 2-3 weeks he stopped feeling tired, said Gandhi, realizing, “it was not us that was walking. It was India that was walking with us.”
Five minutes into Gandhi’s speech, Khalistani protestors entered the auditorium and were escorted out by security. “See, the interesting thing about us, the Congress Party, is we have affection towards everybody,” continued Gandhi. “If someone wants to come and say something, regardless of what they’re saying, we’re happy to listen to it, we’re not going to get angry, we’re not going to get aggressive, we’ll nicely listen to it, in fact we’ll be affectionate with them,” he said, responding to the interruption.
Referring to Sam Pitroda’s introductory speech about his multicultural upbringing, Gandhi said, “The assault that is taking place in India, it’s taking place on our way of life.”
Gandhi also took digs at India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “If you sat Modiji down next to God, Modiji would start explaining to God how the universe worked,” joked Gandhi during his speech.
Women’s Reservation Bill, unity in diversity
At the brief Q&A that followed, Gandhi promised that long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill would pass if the Congress Party comes to power. “If we empower women, if we involve women in the political system, if we give women space in the governance of the country, if we give women space in the businesses of the country, we will automatically make them safe,” he said.
Responding to a question from a Tamil community member about the best way to unite India, Gandhi said, “The languages, cultures, histories of each one of our states has to be protected …what you’re talking about is already incorporated in our Constitution. It’s already there. The BJP and the RSS are attacking that idea that you mentioned and also the Constitution of India.”
“I understand that the Tamil language is more than a language to Tamil people, he said. “It is not just a language, it is their history, it is culture, it their way of life. And I will never ever allow Tamil language to be threatened. Because for me, threatening the Tamil language is to threaten the idea of India. Just like threatening Bengali, or threatening Kannada, or threatening Hindi, threatening Punjabi, are all attacks on that idea. Our strength, unlike many other countries, comes from our diversity, from accepting that we are all different but we can work together.”
He addressed a question from an Ambedkar King Study Circle member about caste, saying that Congress would release caste census data if it came to power. “We are committed as the Congress Party to make India a fair place,” Gandhi said. “And we understand deeply that India today, in terms of its treatment of Dalits, tribals, poor people, minorities, is not a fair place. And there are many many things that can be done.”
To a question about the security threat Muslims face today, Gandhi replied, “The best way for me to explain that is the line: Nafrat ki bazaar mein mohabbat ki dukaan — that is the best way I can say.”