Rahul Gandhi – The Most Establishment Populist

By John McGregor, a translator and political violence researcher

We have grown accustomed to unlikely populist leaders who are clearly more closely tied to the establishment than to disenfranchised voters. The scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, faces the almost impossible task of convincing Indian voters that he is on a campaign against the establishment.

In May 2022, while speaking in London, former Indian National Congress President Rahul Gandhi provided a troubling picture of India. Describing India as a union of states that requires a ‘conversation’, he warned that:

There is a systematic attack on the institutions that allow the conversation to take place. There is a crushing effect on all these institutions. There is an attack on the constitution, there is an attack on the election system, there is an attack on the broad institutional framework of the country and the result is that … states of India are no longer able to negotiate. And that space, that used to be the space of conversation, that used to be the space of negotiation, is being occupied by the deep state. By the institutions of the state that control the state internally: the [Central Bureau of Investigations], the [Enforcement Directorate]; that’s what’s happening.

By attacking Modi’s ruling BJP and its ideological supporter base, Gandhi tried to position himself as the credible opposition to the threat he described (he is also facing an endless investigation by the ED himself). He continued by describing what he sees as the INC’s role in this opposition:

Our job in the Congress, who actually helped build that structure, helped build that negotiation framework, our job, and not just our job, the job of the opposition is to defend that conversation. To make sure that the structures of that conversation, the Constitution, the institutions, are not captured by the RSS, by one idea, but they are accessible to all the states.

Addressing students at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge a few days later, Gandhi repeated these claims that the ‘deep state’ is engaged in a systemic attack on the structures of democracy in India, adding that the Indian media is controlled by a couple of businessmen who support the government.

Gandhi claimed at the time that the opposition needed to go back to the masses in order to get the support to counter the BJP. He is now planning to follow up this talk with a lot of walking, as he will launch the Bharat Jodo Yatra on 7 September. This is a planned national rally that will travel nearly 3,500 km across 12 Indian states, starting in Tamil Nadu and ending in Jammu and Kashmir.

This ambitious attempt to reconnect with the masses fails to take into account what Gandhi himself acknowledged in London: that the INC was central to building the structures that it now claims have been captured by the BJP and RSS. Gandhi also ignores that the INC itself was central to corrupting these structures.

In 2012, the Aam Aadmi Party was born out of a large-scale movement protesting the large-scale corruption in the Congress-led government, including the 2G spectrum allocation scandal and Coalgate. In 2013, its leader Arvind Kejriwal became the Chief Minister of Delhi for the first time. He was re-elected to this role in 2015 and 2020, and in 2022 the AAP took control of the Punjab Legislative Assembly from the INC.

As the AAP has grown it has adopted and even heightened the communalist rhetoric of the BJP. In August 2022, after Union Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Puri from the BJP tweeted that some Rohingya refugees would be placed in flats in Delhi, the AAP publicly attacked the alleged plan. AAP leaders claimed the BJP were conspiring to settle the Rohingyas permanently in order to build a voter bank.

The BJP quickly denied the plan, instead insisting that the Delhi government should be keeping Rohingya refugees in detention centers until their deportation. The Party’s national spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia further emphasized the BJP position on Rohingyas in aggressive terms:

We want to bring to light that Rohingyas are a danger to the security of the country. Kejriwal Ji is doing politics on this issue… Modi Ji’s policy asserts that there would be no compromise with the nation’s security. Our law says that Rohingyas should be deported.

While the AAP and BJP fought to outdo each other, Manish Tewari of the INC tweeted to deny that the Rohingyas are a threat to India, highlighting the tragedy of their current crisis.

Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress has also had consistent local success against the BJP in its home state of West Bengal and has for some time now sought to expand its presence beyond the state and become a truly national party. At a major party rally in July 2022, Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and national party general secretary, said that he was tasked with expanding the party outside West Bengal. He claimed the AITC would win seats outside its home state at the 2024 lower house elections.

Like Gandhi, Banerjee and the AITC have repeatedly claimed that the government agencies of India have been captured by the BJP. When the Enforcement Directorate summoned Abhishek Banerjee for questioning over a coal smuggling case on Friday, he and other TMC members tweeted that the central agencies were puppets of the BJP.

AITC has also made some advances in other states, even if it has not been as successful at recent state elections as it might have expected. The party has initially targeted the North-East for its expansion and in November 2021 convinced 12 out of the 17 INC state legislators to defect to the AITC. In February 2022, the remaining 5 INC legislators defected and joined the state government, a coalition that includes the BJP.

The AITC benefits at the expense of the INC (although not exclusively) and the two parties have directly attacked each other (even if there is theoretical support for a larger coalition to remove the BJP from power). Prior to the 2016 state elections, Gandhi criticized Banerjee, claiming she had cheated the people of West Bengal and had talked about corruption but failed to act.

In September 2021, an editorial in the AITC mouthpiece Jago Bangla, explicitly claimed that Gandhi had failed:

But Rahul Gandhi has failed to be the face against Narendra Modi. So Mamata Banerjee is that face.

When Banerjee attacked Gandhi before the 2014 national elections, she didn’t name him, but instead spoke of him as one of a number of upstart leaders from Delhi who she labeled sons and daughters of overlords and landlords. Directly addressing the INC, she reminded the party that it had been in power for 66 years.

Banerjee’s criticism gets to the heart of the problem that Gandhi faces with the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Looking to the people of India for support to oppose the BJP makes sense, it will indeed take a large supporter base to remove the BJP and release its grip from the tools of power. The INC and Gandhi, however, cannot expect to build such a support base on an anti-corruption and anti-state capture march. As Gandhi himself acknowledged, the INC was central to putting in place the structures of independent India. What he fails to recognize, or acknowledge, is that the INC also has its own very real and recent history of exploiting these very same structures, whether to suspend the rule of law and hold on to power or simply to extract wealth while in power. In the multiparty contest to dethrone Modi, the INC cannot easily pivot from embodying the Indian state itself to campaigning on a populist charge to oppose the deep state.

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  1. Jeremy Grimm

    I suppose I know far too little about Indian politics. This post was difficult to follow and confused me. It sounds like Indian politics are as mucked up as u.s. politics. Is there any study of Indian politics similar to the oft referenced Princeton study of u.s. democracy?

    1. tegnost

      It sounds like india has the same PMC problem…out of touch insincere gestures…

      exploiting these very same structures, whether to suspend the rule of law and hold on to power or simply to extract wealth while in power.

      yeah, sounds familiar, but maybe less suspending the rule of law in favor of simply ignoring crimes via selective prosecutions.

  2. Ahinsa

    The Indian National Congress under Rajiv Gandhi, at one point the only national alternative to the BJP led by Modi, is increasingly becoming irrelevant in Indian politics. Promotion of the Gandhi family at the expense of all other leaders within the party is the only agenda the INC has.
    Regional players like the AITC led by Bannerjee and the AAP led by Kejriwal are alternatives to the BJP at state level but the Indian voters do not see them as a national alternative to Modi. This lack of choice is BJP’s gain. The appearance of a national opposition to the BJP will require multiple regional leaders to agree on power sharing, but unfettered ambition and lack of trust is unlikely to bring these efforts to fruition.

    1. Paul Art

      I will second that. As someone from the subcontinent I have followed Indian politics for 30 years and am sick.of the Gandhi family. Nehru and Indira were true to their Socialist roots a great deal but the Gandhi family should have left politics when Rajiv was assassinated by the Tamil Tiger guerrillas. His wife Sonia an Italian made the disastrous move to enter politics. There are many potentially good Congress leaders – Sashi Tharoor for example who are just being shut up due to this built in Gandhi worship inside the Congress. Modi and the BJP are fascists but they make the trains run on time (although in the wrong direction as Raguram Rajan insinuated when he was RBI governor under Modi). India today is a Hindu Theocracy for all practical purposes.

  3. King

    I think there is a belief that the BJP government is not popular and that Congress is important.

    Rahul Gandhi and also Gandhi/Nehru forget to introspect that since Independence Congress was the only National Party. Instead of building the nation, they went on a spree of building the Nehru/Gandhi family and Congress party. When there was a challenge to Nehru/Gandhi family they either split the party or removed the challenger. They were clever politically and carried on the divide and rule policy of the British.

    Hence India has a separate rule for Hindu/Christian/Sikhs (monogamy, divorce laws etc) and separate sharia law for Muslims(Polygamy, Divorce, Halala/No alimony to women) etc, you can google the Shah Bano case and see. There were anti-Sikh riots by Congress sponsored by Rajiv Gandhi in response to the death of Indira Gandhi.
    Corruption by Congress premiers as can be checked by claims of KGB spies talking money in suitcases to PMs house etc.

    Media was infiltrated by Left-wing and Congress-sponsored journalists who got a lot of freebies. A recent tweet by a prominent journalist says Congress paid them to attack their opponents.

    Now, the problem with the congress and these journalists is from elite royal PM (Gandhi/Nehru family) for the 1st time there is a backward class PM–Modi(he is not upper cast and was a tea seller when young. His dad had tea stall at the railway station). He is not corrupt (check his assets and how his brothers and mother lives). He is humble (not afraid to touch ordinary people’s feet as a mark of respect). Bothered actually about India’s foreign policy and economic policy (Nehru/Gandhi had nationalised all assets in India and it took a Non-Gandhi, Brahmin PM–PV Narsimha Rao to denationalise all assets and Gandhis didn’t like him as he took a decision they were not ready to take.). Modi is more popular than the Gnadhis. And for 1st time other freedom fighters apart from Nehru and Gandhi are being honoured nationally ( Nehru/Gandhi family only portrayed themselves as freedom fighters and hence all stadiums/airports were named after them like Nehru stadium,Gandhi airport etc etc. ). ManMohan Singh was a congress/Gandhi stooge and looked the other way while Gandhis carried on corrupt practices.

    As these journalists are not getting freebies as they used to get and as PM doesn’t speak English fluently as Gandhis did hence they frown and look down on Modi and are happy to spread fake news.

    Despite there being nothing against Muslims they keep trying to project BJP as anti-Muslim and a Hindutva party. As one prominent scientist said on being targeted for being shown performing p=hindu puja at home–Is it a crime being a Hindu or doing a Hindu pooja? They seem to be spreading Hinduphobia.

    Despite the Kashmir Hindu genocide, this news was suppressed in 1990s and still despite so many crimes where just honest reporting is needed these journalist change the name of preparator of these crimes if he has a Muslim name but are happy to amplify the name if it is Hindu preparator of a similar crime. Instead of treating it as humans being humans, these journalists are trying their best to create this. There are numerous examples of these including when Mumbai was attacked on 26/11 in 2007 by Muslim terrorists from Pakistan, the then congresses government and a lot of these journalists tried to say the preparators were Hindus.

    Time is not far that Hindus will suffer the same fate as Jews and be vilified by the world as Jews were.

    Anyway, it is good to slowly see Internationally people recognising that the Gandhi family and the Congress of India are the problem.

    Now Bengal–Mamta government indulged in killing and raping their opponents and if that is better alternative to BJP then I am not sure what will help the world. The same is true for the opposition in UP and a lot of other places.

    AAP could be a viable opponent and good for people but only if it stopped giving free electricity and water and other stuff to people and causing more debts to the states it rules due to this and causing damage to the economy
    Thanks for the article

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      “Time is not far that Hindus will suffer the same fate as Jews and be vilified by the world as Jews were.”
      Really!? I know nothing of Indian politics but your comment sounds a little warped and paranoid.

    2. Ahinsa

      Clearly a shill for the BJP. I see something different under the present government. Collective punishment being administered (demolition of stone throwers houses) so reminiscent of what goes on in the only apartheid country in the world so admired by Modi. Hounding of opposition by regulators and state agencies. Homogenization of opinion across newspapers and TV channels. A very neoliberal policy in selling state assets or privatizing them to meet short term budgetary goals. Massive youth unemployment, botched Covid lockdowns, demonetization.. the list goes on. As for personal corruption, that remains a matter of debate. No hesitation in accepting a 10 lac rupees embroidered suit before auctioning it under public gaze. And the overlooking of self enrichment of the family of his home minister. Indian democracy has never been under greater threat.

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