Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi came down heavily on the Modi government’s economic policies and also accused it of promoting divisive politics, and said that lynchings and attacks on liberals were badly damaging India’s image.
Speaking to students at the University of California here, Gandhi defended dynasty politics, saying that was how the entire country was running, and also said he was “absolutely ready” to be the party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2019 general elections.
The BJP hit back at Gandhi by terming him a “failed dynast” for his justification of dynasty politics and reminded him that the top three constitutional posts in the country are held by common people with merit and that democracy is not beholden to dynasty.
Gandhi is on a two-week US visit to interact with political leaders, global thinkers and overseas Indians. He was speaking to students at the University of California here where his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his speech in 1949.
He targeted the Modi government while speaking on ‘India at 70: Reflections on the Path Forward’ on Monday night and termed the demonetisation decision a “self-inflicted wound”.
He said the decision to scrap Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes on November 8 last year and the “hastily implemented” Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime caused “tremendous damage” to the Indian economy.
“The decline in economic growth today is worrying and it’s leading to an upsurge of anger in the country. The government’s economic policies, demonetisation and hastily applied GST have caused tremendous damage.
“Millions of small businesses were simply wiped out as a result of demonetisation. Farmers and manual labourers who use cash were hit extremely hard. Agriculture is in deep distress and farmer suicides have sky rocketed across the country. Demonetisation, a completely self-inflicted wound, caused approximately two per cent loss in India’s GDP.”
“Decisions like demonetisation which removed 86 per cent of cash from circulation overnight and was carried out unilaterally without asking the Chief Economic Advisor, the cabinet or even Parliament imposes a devastating cost in India,” he added.
Gandhi said that ignoring India’s tremendous institutional knowledge and taking ad hoc decisions is reckless and dangerous.
“Listening to India is very important. She will give you all the answers that you seek. India’s institutions have over 70 years have built a profound understanding of our country. We have experts in every single field.”
Gandhi said the government was not creating enough jobs. “30,000 new youngsters are joining the job market every single day and yet the government is only creating 500 jobs a day. This doesn’t include the massive pool of already unemployed youngsters,” he said.
He said that hatred, anger and violence and the politics of polarisation has raised its ugly head in India today.
“Liberal journalists being shot, people being lynched because they are Dalits, Muslims killed on suspicion of eating beef, this is new in India and damages India very badly.
“The politics of hate divides and polarises India, making millions of people feel that they have no future in their own country. In today’s connected world, this is extremely dangerous. It isolates people and makes them vulnerable to radical ideas,” he said.
“I understand what violence does, violence against anybody is wrong. Hatred, anger and violence can destroy us, the politics of polarisation is dangerous,” he said, adding “liberal journalists were being shot (referring to Kannada journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh’s murder), people are being lynched.
“These incidents are making millions feel that they have no future in their country.”
On dynastic politics, Gandhi said, “It is a problem in all political parties in India” but that was how “most of the country runs like”.
He said former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, son of Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, M.K. Stalin, son of M. Karunanidhi of DMK, BJP leader Prem Kumar Dhumal’s son Anurag Thakur, Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s son Abhishek Bachchan, Dhirubhai Ambani’s sons Mukesh and Anil were all examples of dynastic legacy in India.
“That’s how the entire country is running. So don’t just go after me…. That’s what happens in India.”
Gandhi talked about a range of issues including the Congress’ loss in the 2014 general elections in which his party slid to its lowest tally ever in the Lok Sabha.
He admitted that “in around 2012 arrogance crept into the Congress and we stopped having conversations with people” that led to the party’s loss in the last poll.
“For rebuilding the party, we need to design a vision that we can use moving forward. Most of what the BJP (government) is doing, is what we once said,” Gandhi said citing the examples of the UPA government’s MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) and the GST.
He accused Modi of controlling and managing an online machine of over a thousand trolls whose purpose is to destroy Gandhi’s credibility and call him “stupid and incompetent”.
Choosing foreign soil, Gandhi declared he is “absolutely ready” to be the party’s prime ministerial candidate in the next general elections. However, he made it clear that the decision has to be finally approved by the party.
“I am absolutely ready to do that,” Gandhi, who is widely tipped to succeed his mother Sonia as party President, said.
This is for the first time the Gandhi scion has publicly affirmed his readiness to be the Congress choice for the top post.
While criticising the Prime Minister and his government, he, however, acknowledged that Modi was a “better communicator” than he is.
“Modi has certain skills, he is a very good communicator, he’s much better than me. He knows how to give a message to 3-4 different groups in a crowd, so his messaging ability is very effective and subtle.”
Gandhi said the BJP’s vision was flawed because it come from “top to bottom” while as the Congress constructed “a bottom-up vision”.
He gave an example of dealing with the Kashmir issue and alleged that the government had opened up the space for terrorism in the state.
“When we started, terrorism was rampant in Kashmir. And when we finished by 2013, we basically broke the back of terror, I hugged (then) Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and told him it was one of the biggest achievements.”
“For nine years I worked behind the scenes with PM Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram, Jairam Ramesh and others on J&K,” said Rahul.
Union Information and Broadcasting Minister and BJP leader Smriti Irani, attacking Gandhi, said that a “failed dynast chose to speak about his failed political journeys in USA”.
“The fact that he (Gandhi) says that dynast and dynasty are the very fulcrum in India is itself an anomaly. The three dignitaries (President, Vice President and Prime Minister) in the highest constitutional positions today are in themselves an indication that Indian democracy thrives and gives opportunity to merit and is not beholden to dynasty.”