Rahul Gandhi, India’s most influential opposition leader, addresses the future of democracy in India during his UCSC Silicon Valley Extension talk

Gandhi, former president of the Indian National Congress, had an on-stage dialogue with UCSC professor of feminist studies Anjali Arondekar, founding co-director for the Center for South Asian Studies

Gandhi, in his on-stage discussion with UCSC professor of feminist studies Anjali Arondekar (left), founding co-director for the Center For South Asian Studies, emphasized the limits of BJP’s brand of politics. Photos by Crystal Birns.
Anjali Arondekar (left), asked how Gandhi’s progressive vision might play out in electoral politics.
Rahul Gandhi received an enthusiastic response from the Santa Clara crowd.

Rahul Gandhi, former president of the Indian National Congress, and India’s best-known opposition leader, highlighted the dysfunction and corruption of the current Indian government, alongside his party’s optimism for a democratic and more just future for India. Gandhi spoke during a surprise visit to University of California, Santa Cruz’s Silicon Valley Extension campus in Santa Clara this week.

Gandhi said Indian democracy and free expression sustained a massive blow in 2014, a pointed reference to the election in which prime minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged victorious. 

Modi’s political opponents, as well as organizations such as Human Rights Watch, have accused Modi’s government of targeting religious minorities, muzzling and prosecuting journalists, and using the tools of the state to punish political opponents. 

In contemporary India, “there is a confusion these days about power and force,” said Gandhi, whose grandmother, the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in 1984. His father, Rajiv Gandhi, served as Indian prime minister from 1984 until his assassination in 1991. “Power and force are completely different things yet somehow everyone is convinced they are the same thing,” Gandhi said. “Power is the language of truth. You can throw as much force against that as you want, and nothing is going to happen …. Force is directed against somebody, and it is designed to suppress.”

“What we were finding back home (in India) was that the rules that were available to us in politics some years ago were no longer available to us,” Gandhi said. “People think politics is just about politicians talking, but there is a whole infrastructure that supports the politics—the police, the judiciary, the idea that people can express themselves. It is clear that those were under pressure, that they were under attack.”

“All the instruments we needed to do politics in India were controlled by the BJP and the RSS (an Indian Hindu-nationalist paramilitary group),” he said. 

The talk, “Rahul Gandhi: Towards Justice and Democratic Futures,” was hosted by UC Santa Cruz’s Center For South Asian Studies (CSAS). 

Gandhi, in his on-stage discussion with UCSC professor of feminist studies Anjali Arondekar, founding co-director for the Center For South Asian Studies, emphasized the limits of BJP’s brand of politics.

“For one minute I don’t believe the BJP cannot be defeated,” said Gandhi, who addressed the crowd while members of his security detail stood close by. “I, as a political actor, can see their huge vulnerability. The central weakness of the BJP is the tremendous amount of inequality and pain they are causing. It’s across the board. It is minorities, it is poor people, it is small to medium businesses.”

Arondekar said that the talk with Gandhi reflects the Center For South Asian Studies’s commitment to dialogues between members of the community and UC Santa Cruz scholars doing important public-facing research on issues of equity, inclusion, and human rights. “We believe in creating dialogue and sanctuary, and that is why our center is focused on questions of justice,” Arondekar said. 

“The (speaking) invitation that Mr. Gandhi so generously accepted extends our vision of justice,’’ Arondekar said. “It is a unique opportunity to come together and talk about the perils and possibilities of democratic futures in an increasingly divided and authoritarian India.” 

Gandhi, who received an enthusiastic response from the Santa Clara audience, spoke about the aftermath of his ejection from Parliament and the threats of arrest that have been made against him, as well as a momentous walk from the southernmost tip of India to the city of Srinagar, a journey of 621 miles (1,000 kilometers.) 

In taking this epic walk, the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Gandhi set out to demonstrate, in a highly public way, that the authentic values of the Indian people, and in particular its poor and disenfranchised populations, have been distorted almost beyond recognition by slanted media coverage as well as entrenched political infrastructure, he told the Santa Clara crowd. 

“Words didn’t count for much, because … no matter what you tried to say, it would be reshaped, portrayed in a completely different way,” Gandhi said. “And the simple answer to this is to walk. It may sound strange, but it was unbelievably profound, because the moment we started to walk, we discovered a completely different India. To me, it was a massive shock.”

“The strangest thing I found is that in the 21st century now, people are really looking for action, affection, and togetherness, and the impression that one is given is the exact opposite,” Gandhi added. 

At one point, Arondekar asked Gandhi how he was able to deal with the cold while wearing a flimsy shirt and avoiding jackets during the length of his walk. He explained that this was a conscious choice. He met with a group of children who were shivering because they did not have enough clothes on. He and his staff bought jackets for the children, but he decided not to wear them himself. “If kids can be in this cold without clothes, and I am stating that I will try to represent them, then on what basis do I wear a sweater?”

He said the walk was intended as a physical demonstration of a core belief: “Most people think love is a feeling. Love is not a feeling. Love is an action that generates a feeling. So if you act lovingly, the opposition doesn’t have a choice.” 

In early March, Gandhi was convicted of defamation because of a speech he made during the 2019 general election in which he compared Modi, his rival in the election, with two convicted criminals who also have the surname of Modi, a common surname in India.

Gandhi was sentenced to two years in jail—the maximum sentence, as well as a penalty that resulted in his ejection from Parliament. 

He has been fighting to get the verdict overturned. Thus far, he has avoided jail time, but the threat still looms. Supporters of Modi have claimed the sentence was just, while his supporters call this a weaponization of the court system against Modi’s rival.

In light of recent developments in Indian politics, Gandhi’s series of appearances in the U.S.A, offered reasons for hope, along with the recent “wave of euphoria” following the Indian opposition party’s triumph in the Karnataka state elections, said Arondekar. In Karnataka, home to 65 million people, the election results were a blow to Modi’s power and influence.

Arondekar noted that Gandhi’s Jodo Yatra had served as “an enormous source of inspiration” for many members of the Indian diaspora who were concerned about the precarity of democracy in India. “We have moved from a politics of disenchantment to engagement,” she said. However, Arondekar equally emphasized the contradictions in India’s political present, where electoral victory in Karnataka did not eliminate structural violence against Muslim populations.

During the dialogue, Arondekar also pressed Gandhi on the escalation of sexual violence against women in India as well as the recent detention of some of India’s top female wrestlers after accusing the president of the Wrestling Foundation of India of sexual harassment. 

Arondekar asked how Gandhi’s progressive vision might play out in electoral politics. Gandhi said that the Karnataka election is a good sign that those politics may be shifting. 

“Pretty much all poor voters in Karnataka across the board voted for the Congress party, and one of the central elements we are dealing with in India is the massive difference between rich and poor—a few people who have almost unlimited wealth and millions and millions of people who are struggling.”

During the talk, Anuradha Luther Maitra, a longtime UCSC Foundation trustee and former UC Santa Cruz professor who endowed a professorship for the Center For South Asian studies, asked Gandhi about the massive unemployment deficit in India. “By a reasonable estimate, that is about a hundred million jobs today,” she said. She also expressed profound concern about the education and health of the Indian people. “What would you do differently?” she asked.

Gandhi responded that unemployment in India is now a crisis that has spiraled out of control. “A huge reason for that unemployment has to do with the way the BJP is concentrating wealth and power and wiping out small businesses,” Gandhi said. “The central problem is that in India, we disrespect skills.” He spoke of the skilled jeans-makers in India who are now unemployed “because we are not linking capital with skills.” He also called for much greater public expenditure for education. 

“Even the way we teach and what we teach doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We don’t let our children question. We make them memorize things. These, unfortunately, are cultural things. They hint at questions of caste and community.” 

Arondekar asked Gandhi what members of the Indian diaspora can do to support progressive politics in India, especially considering that the BJP enjoys wide support as well as financial backing of members of the diaspora in the U.S. and the UK. “We are with you with the love,” Arondekar asked. “Now give us an action plan.”

“Express what India actually is,” Gandhi replied. “Express what our philosophy is, what our history is, because a lot of times what BJP does is completely distorting what India is. We prize humility first. All our great leaders in India tended towards humility. Where is the humility in the BJP? They know everything, they understand everything. I think the most important thing …is don’t respond to hatred with hatred. It drives them crazy. Don’t respond to their nastiness and cruelty with nastiness and cruelty. There will be no end to it.” 

A video recording of the event is available here.