BERKELEY, Calif. – Congress Party vice president Rahul Gandhi, speaking Sept. 11 evening at the University of California, Berkeley, lambasted the Narendra Modi government for fomenting “the politics of polarization” and re-igniting terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.
In his brief talk — standing in the footsteps of his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, who gave a speech at UC Berkeley in 1949 — Gandhi, whose Congress Party is at a crossroads after its overwhelming defeat to the BJP in 2014, said he was ready to run against Prime Minister Modi in 2019.
Accusing the government of promoting divisive politics, Gandhi said, “This has damaged India irreparably.” He noted the recent murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, the continued ill-treatment of Dalits, and the lynching of people suspected to be transporting cows.
"It makes millions feel they have no future in their own country, isolates people and turns them to radicalization," said Gandhi, as a crowd of people protested outside the hall, accusing Gandhi and the Congress Party of being complicit in the November 1984 riots that followed after the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (see separate story).
Blasting the BJP for re-igniting terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, Gandhi, speaking on the topic, “India at 70: Reflections on the Path Forward,” said Modi had undone in 30 days the progress created by the Congress Party over nine years.
“When we started, terrorism was rampant in Kashmir. When we finished there was peace. By 2013, we had basically broken the back of terror,” he said, noting that the UPA-coalition government, led by the Congress Party, held panchayat elections, gave self-employed women access to banking, brought major corporations to the region, and introduced new work programs for youth.
“We closed the space for terrorism in Kashmir, and gave the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir a vision of their future,” said Gandhi, denouncing the Modi government’s alliance with the People’s Democratic Party, which – he said – re-opened the space for terrorism in the region.
The Congress Party leader also denounced demonetization and the “hastily-applied” Goods and Services Tax, both of which he said have caused tremendous damage to India’s economy. “Agriculture is in deep distress and thousands of small businesses have been completely wiped out,” he stated.
Gandhi praised his party for lifting millions of Indians out of poverty. “No Democratic country in the world has been able to achieve that,” he said.
“For the first time, India has the opportunity to lift 130 million people out of poverty by 2030, by sustaining our growth rate of 8 percent over the next 10 to 15 years,” he said, adding that India must not follow China’s model of economic development via massive factories, but must focus instead on small and medium-sized business, which he described as “the bedrock” of India’s economy.
In a conversation onstage with Pradeep Chhibber, director of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and UC Berkeley alumnus Harsh Shah, Gandhi surprisingly praised several of Modi’s signature initiatives, including the “Swaach Bharaat” campaign and the “Make in India” program, but noted he would re-format the latter program to focus on small and medium businesses, rather than the defense industry and multinational corporations.
He also praised Modi as an excellent communicator. “He’s probably better than me. His messaging ability is subtle and effective,” he said, as chuckles arose from the audience.
In the most talked-about moment of the evening, Gandhi defended “dynastic politics,” noting it was the norm in India.
“Most of the country runs like this. That’s how India works,” said the scion of the Gandhi family, which has served India since its independence.
“Dynastic politics is a problem in all political parties,” said Gandhi, naming several politicians who had inherited their seats from their fathers. Gandhi also mentioned Abhishek Bachchan, the son of Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, and Mukesh and Anil Ambani as “examples of dynastic legacy.”
Union Minister Smriti Irani later ripped into Gandhi, saying she was appalled by his defense of dynastic rule.
“He seems to have forgotten that in the Independent India, there are many citizens who have contributed in different walks of life, but they do not have any political legacy. The prime minister himself is a man who has risen from a humble background, as have the president and the vice president,” said Irani, as reported by NDTV.
Gandhi is on a two-week visit to the U.S. to interact with political leaders, global thinkers and the Indian American community.
Watch Gandhi's speech here: