Rahul G at Stanford was no barefoot messiah in a loin cloth but a dapper Nehru-jacket clad man with a salt and pepper beard who evoked images of truth and moral courage. This was a new Gandhi for a new age – opposing an old-fashioned autocrat who was allegedly subverting democracy and secularism.
The queue went round the block and tickets were completely sold out. This made Rahul Gandhi more popular that Brian Chesky ( founder of Airbnb) who was the last person I heard in the same auditorium on the Stanford campus (no queue), but less popular than Sima Taparia of Indian matchmaking TV series fame whom I could not manage to get anywhere close to (all tickets gone in pre-orders)!
What this says about Rahul Gandhi is less interesting than what it predicts about Sima Aunty’s future trajectory: being Gujarati and wildly popular with NRIs has been a match made in heaven for political success in India and nobody knows catches, matches and the power of media exposure better than Simaji.
Rahul was introduced western style without the honorific. And since this was Stanford, with a string of schools and colleges he has attended, including St Stephen’s College, Delhi and Harvard ( briefly before transferring to a Florida University) and Cambridge University UK. A mention was made of his political lineage and the fact that his father, grandmother and great grandfather have served as Indian prime ministers. The audience was a mix of Stanford’s Indian students, research fellows and faculty as well as Indians from the Bay Area who had not even finished applauding when Rahul went to the podium to speak. He clearly meant business.
A new Gandhi
This was no hustings speech with populist appeal and pauses for applause. It was delivered confidently and well (without notes) and pitched at Stanford intellectuals. He spoke about how being disqualified as a member of parliament has turned out to be a gift. While he has appealed the conviction in the defamation case, he has been able to use the time freed up from MP duties to travel 4000 km across India on foot. His padayatra ( reminiscent of Mahatma Gandhi’s historic Dandi March) has been a great learning experience for him where he met ordinary Indians and learnt about their hopes and dreams.
He spoke about the distinction between force and power and said that the Indian government even with all the institutions of force under its control (like the police and army) was ‘powerless’ to stop his march or arrest him because the real power is with the person who is closer to the truth. Again the image of Mahatma Gandhi (no relation) was being evoked with the mention of truth; satyagraha which is a Gandhian concept means quite literally holding fast to the truth. All good stuff as far as the Stanford audience went.
Rahul G at Stanford was no barefoot messiah in a loin cloth but a dapper Nehru-jacket clad man with a salt and pepper beard who evoked images of truth and moral courage. This was a new Gandhi for a new age – opposing an old-fashioned autocrat who was allegedly subverting democracy and secularism. Unrelated but relevant, a popular Stanford undergraduate course called ‘Defending Democracy’ had earlier this quarter, run a special lecture on the India case which predicted the demise of democratic institutions.
Quite predictably though, the high point of the lecture came during the only populist portion of the lecture. Rahul talked about how he was warned not to go to Kashmir as part of his padayatra. The troubled Indian state over which Pakistan stakes claim has had a long history of terrorism. ‘ I told those who warned me that I will definitely go because I don’t mind laying down my life for the country.’ Given that his grandmother and father were both assassinated, the audience reacted with loud applause.
My attendance at the lecture was impelled by curiosity. The popular narrative has been all about the gaffes Rahul has made in his speeches. ‘Pappu’ (Hindi shorthand for muddling simpleton) was a nickname that stuck to him in the early days as he showed himself unfamiliar with the country, the language and the politics. How could he lead when he couldn’t even read? In the Stanford lecture, my gaffe-meter picked out only one clumsy statement when he was talking about a man he met during the padayatra, who did not have arms. He asked the man what he did for a living and the man replied that he was a mechanic. Rahul Gandhi said he thought the man was lying. Lying? That was not an appropriate word! He could easily have said that maybe he misunderstood. As it turned out the man WAS a mechanic and repaired cars with his feet! Apart from this, the Stanford speech was a polished act.
Elsewhere in the US as well, I believe his speeches went down well. This could be the beginning of a new Rahul Gandhi. Democracy needs strong countervailing forces and for that reason alone, I am glad he is becoming 'Pappular'!
(The author is a 2022 DCI Fellow at Stanford University USA. She lives in London and is the author of East or West: An NRI mum’s manual on bringing up desi children overseas. Views are personal)