Rahul treads cautiously against Modi govt on foreign soil, not giving alibi to BJP
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during his Brussels visit (seen here with Sam Pitroda)

Rahul treads cautiously against Modi govt on foreign soil, not giving alibi to BJP

During his press meet at the Brussels Press Club, the Congress leader eschewed criticism of the government on issues which could be taken as antinational by the BJP back home to create a false narrative

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With the ruling BJP using the forthcoming G20 Summit in Delhi to whip up hysteria of jingoistic nationalism, bolstered further by a manufactured acrimony that has pitted India against Bharat, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has a tough balancing act to pull off during his ongoing week-long visit to Belgium, France and Norway.

Known to hold no punches while slamming Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP–RSS combine, Rahul’s statements during his visits abroad have often landed him and his party in the eye of a raging political storm for what the BJP has repeatedly claimed are attempts at “maligning India” on foreign soil.

Rahul’s ongoing European tour, during which he would meet European lawmakers, university students, journalists and members of the Indian Diaspora, may thus, end up handing the BJP ammunition to launch another attack pivoted on the emotive issue of national pride if the Congress leader displays a lack of tact in dealing with queries regarding the state of the Indian democracy under Modi.

That such an attack by the BJP would have repercussions that aren’t limited to him and the Congress but will extend to the entirety of the Opposition’s still-evolving INDIA coalition is not lost on the Wayanad MP. Sources involved with planning Rahul’s public interactions during such visits abroad told The Federal that while it is “not in Rahul’s character to simply gloss over the assaults democracy in India is facing under the Modi regime, we know that the BJP will monitor every word he says and try to twist them to build a negative narrative... we have to make sure that the BJP doesn’t get a chance to do this, or at the very least, if it does so then there is sufficient video evidence of the interactions in the public domain to ensure that the allegations don’t stick”.

Diplomatic stand evident

A sign of this approach was evident in Rahul’s interaction with journalists at the Brussels Press Club, on Friday (September 8). Though Rahul reiterated his earlier criticisms of the Modi regime’s “full-scale assault on the democratic institutions of our country”, he made sure to assert that the “fight for democracy in India is ours (the Opposition), it’s our responsibility and we will make sure that the onslaught on our institutions and our freedom is stopped; the Opposition will make sure it happens”.

It may be recalled that the BJP had accused Rahul of asking European countries and the USA to “intervene in the functioning of India’s democracy” during his visit to London earlier this year. The issue had rocked Parliament proceedings during the budget session in March and BJP MP Nishikant Dubey had also moved a breach of privilege notice against Rahul though the Congress leader firmly rebutted the charge claiming he had made no such statement. The matter, however, took a backseat when, within days, Rahul was disqualified from his membership of the Lok Sabha, which has now been restored, after he was convicted in the ‘Modi surname’ criminal defamation case by a Surat court.

On Friday (September 8), though Rahul carefully parried questions on what role he saw of western democracies with regard to the state of political or social affairs in India. He also endorsed former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s view that the Modi government had taken the right approach on the prolonged Russia–Ukraine conflict. Asked what he thought of India’s continuing economic relations with Russia, particularly with regard to oil imports, despite a host of countries imposing various economic sanctions against Kremlin, Rahul said that the Opposition in India “by and large” supports the government on the ties with Russia.

Similarly, though he was critical of the Modi government’s decision to not invite Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge for the dinner that will be hosted by President Droupadi Murmu on September 9 for foreign dignitaries participating in the G20 Summit, Rahul said India’s hosting of the global summit was “a good thing”.

The BJP has equated India’s steering of the G20 this year – under the global grouping’s rotational presidency convention – to the “rise in India’s prestige in the world because of Narendra Modi’s leadership”. The ruling party has also craftily used the two-day event to ignite cacophonic speculation that the Modi regime may replace India with Bharat as the country’s official name and amend the Constitution, which describes the Union as India, that is Bharat”, to fulfill Modi’s “vision of removing signs of slavery” as the country enters Amrit Kaal – the 75th year of its independence from the British.

Rahul, however, refused to get drawn into a verbal duel on the matter, pithily stating that the constitutional formulation of “India, that is, Bharat works perfectly for me” while terming the BJP’s assertion for using Bharat, instead of India, on official G20 invites as a “panic reaction” in response to the Opposition bloc’s acronym reading INDIA and the uncomfortable questions being hurled at the government over the Prime Minister’s links with controversial businessman Gautam Adani.

On the specific issue of BJP’s G20 drumbeating, Rahul said, “G20 is an important conversation and it is a good thing that India is hosting it.” He, however, made it clear that the presence of heads of states and delegations of various G20 countries in Delhi does not mean that the assaults on democracy, religious minorities and oppressed communities by the Modi regime were being given a “free pass”.

At least during the interaction at the Brussels Press Club, Rahul stuck to criticising the Modi regime on issues over which red flags have been raised repeatedly by various countries, international agencies and global thought leaders. These included the ongoing ethnic violence in Manipur, attacks on oppressed communities, religious minorities and the freedom of expression.

Tackling tricky question

On the perpetually tricky question of his views on the Centre’s abrogation of Article 370, the former Congress president stuck to his party’s stated position that his view is the same as the one outlined in the resolution passed by the Congress Working Committee soon after the Modi government abrogated Article 370 and bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir. “We are for ensuring that every single person in our country has a voice, and is allowed to express themselves. We feel very strongly that Kashmir should progress and that there should be peace in Kashmir,” Rahul said.

The Wayanad MP, however, was more forthright in his criticism of China and the alternative vision that he feels India needs to present. “China is proposing a vision of the planet... I don’t see an alternative vision coming from our side... what the Chinese have shown is that it is possible to produce effectively in a coercive environment where you restrict their freedom but you offer them prosperity without political freedom. The challenge for us is that can we provide a vision where we do production under democratic conditions with political and economic freedom... I think that’s where I see scope of cooperation with the US and Europe... on how we can create an alternative and competitive vision to the Chinese coercive production model,” he said.

Compared to his earlier public interactions in foreign countries, Rahul’s press conference in Brussels may seem like a damp squib, particularly for BJP mandarins who would have hoped for a slip-up that they could use on their vast social media network to criticise the Congress leader, in particular, and the Opposition bloc, in general. However, there is still a sense of unease among a section of the Congress and within the wider Opposition bloc which is already on the back foot in responding to the BJP’s tirade against DMK leader Udhayanidhi Stalin’s “eradicate Sanatana Dharma” remark.

“Rahul has to be very careful about what he says at the other interactions that are planned in Paris and Oslo, We are now months from key assembly polls and there is already suspense building over the possibility of Modi calling for early Lok Sabha elections... the BJP would be waiting for Rahul to say anything that can be twisted into an anti-national remark and it is crucial that he doesn’t oblige them as he has done many times in the past,” a senior Congress leader told The Federal.

Another leader from an INDIA constituent pointed out that the BJP will use the G20 Summit to stir up “muscular nationalism” and said the Congress should have “avoided organising Rahul’s foreign visit at such a time because it is obvious that he will be critical of Modi in his interactions and the BJP will go to town claiming that on one hand the PM is working overtime for raising the country’s prestige globally and on the other, Rahul is shaming him and the country abroad... even trenchant critics of the government who see through the false narrative of India’s global dominance being built by the BJP using the G20 Summit will not like uncharitable remarks being made about the country by Rahul abroad when so many world leaders are in Delhi”.

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