Rahul in the NREye

Picture Credit: PTI Picture Credit: PTI FRANKLY SPEAKING (From top) Rahul Gandhi interacts with journalists; at the 
London School of Economics with the director of the South Asia Centre; 
Prime Minister Modi at the Wembley Stadium on his first UK trip in November 2015
Picture Credit: AFP (Above Picture)

There was no rock star reception. No chanting of his name as he made a grand stage entrance. Film stars and artistes had not been flown in from India to entertain audiences as they whiled away time awaiting the show-stopper address. No slick films venerating his every word and deed; no propaganda machine deifying him. And yet everyone who came to see him – most for the first time – left with one impression: he was “real”. There was nothing fake about Rahul Gandhi.

This was his first outing as Congress president to the Indian diaspora in Britain and it went prosperously. He charmed his audiences with his soft-spoken honesty. “Sincere”, “genuine”, “open”, “compassionate”, “intelligent”, “humble”, “kind” were some of the adjectives used to describe him by those who attended the events in London last weekend.

Some of the ladies swooned over his Hollywood hero looks and his cute dimples, so much so that he had to come clean and point out that the one on the right cheek is actually not a dimple but a mark left by a nasty injury he got from a harpoon while spear fishing. “But it looks nice as it is in the right place,” Rahul chuckled, flashing a warm smile, endearing himself even more with his candour.

In over 48 hours, he met Indian students; doctors and nurses working in the National Health Service; addressed a gathering of intellectuals at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS); had dinner with movers and shakers at the Mayor of Richmond’s reception; spoke to British members of Parliament in the Grand Committee Room of the Houses of Westminster; interacted with the Indian Journalists Association and rounded his trip off with a Mega Conference of Congress members and supporters.

“His flight was late. He came in at 5am and his first event was scheduled for 9am. We were tired the next morning as we had gone to Stansted airport to receive him, but he was not. His energy is infectious,” said Sudhakar Goud, a spokesperson for the UK chapter of the Indian Overseas Congress (IOC), which had organised the tour.

In stark contrast to Narendra Modi’s two trips to the UK as Prime Minister which were lavish shows of money power, Rahul’s events were spartan. The Mega Conference organised by the IOC was not held at a football stadium but the banqueting hall of a five-star facility in South Ruislip in west London. Ironically, the venue falls in the parliamentary constituency of former foreign secretary Boris Johnson – another would-be prime minister – but of course that was not the reason why it was chosen. “We had people who came from all across the country, Scotland, the Midlands, Wales so we needed a convenient location for them to get to. Central London is difficult and many of the organisers live in west London so that too became a factor,” explained Goud, whose day job is as an IT consultant and lawyer.

After a patient wait of four-and-half hours with no more than a bottle of water on offer, the 2,000-odd crowd at the Ramada were satisfied with what they saw and heard. “Rahul is not an entertainer like Modi, he is serious, a bit like English politicians What you see is what you get! And I like that,” said Ananya Chakrabarti, who couldn’t get into the hall, but watched the event on an LCD screen erected in the car park.

When it came to answering a couple of questions like “what he brings to the table besides his name”, Rahul fumbled a little. He agreed that he had joined politics because of his family, but ultimately he was elected. A stronger, more thought out, affirmation of his career choice would have helped. While he has come a long way from his image as “Rahul the Reluctant”, perhaps he still requires time. “Maybe he ne to be leader of the Opposition for one more term, before he is completely ready to lead the country,” said a British journalist and an old India hand.

All the events Rahul addressed were oversubscribed. “There is a huge appetite here among people to get to know Rahul Gandhi as a person, see him first-hand and make up their minds,” said Mukulika Banerjee, associate professor and director of the South Asia Centre at the London School of Economics (LSE). She moderated the conversation Rahul had with more than 600 students at LSE. “He spoke thoughtfully, in some detail on a range of subjects and with great energy. And most importantly the whole event was entirely unscripted,” said Banerjee.

This was in sharp contrast with Modi’s interview with film-writer Prasoon Joshi at the Central Hall in Westminster in April this year, where the questions were so obviously vetted and the answers all scripted. This time members of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union (NISAU), who were left out in the cold during Modi’s event, got a chance to grill Rahul. And he revelled in the interaction. He got up from his chair and strode across the stage as he fielded questions. “He was so much more intelligent than I expected him to be,” said a student as she left the auditorium.

The “Pappu” image meticulously crafted by the BJP and their social media engines precedes Rahul wherever he goes. “Thanks to social media, initially I thought of Rahul Gandhi as a bit of a joker, thrust into a position without the capability to lead a party,” said Rumu Sarah Dey, an HR professional. “But over the last year, I have found that he is not as naïve as people make him out to be. He has spoken sensibly on environment, climate control, empathises with problems in India, and has stood up quicker than Modi on hate crimes and rapes,” added Dey.

Comparisons between Rahul and Modi both in style and substance are inevitable. And there are some who continue to be staunch Modi supporters. Says Binju Dodhia, a nursery teacher, “Modi hasn’t helped us. We lost money during demonetisation as no arrangements were made for us to exchange our 500 and 1,000 rupee notes. And now with the Aadhaar card, we don’t know what is going to happen to us. My elderly father in Mumbai was so stressed by the messages from the banks that it triggered his depression.” But, she insists, in 2019 Modi will still be her choice for PM. Ask her about Rahul and her reply is, “I don’t like him, he appears silly and doesn’t evoke confidence.”

While Modi has held mega events in London giving ” darshan” to his devotees and bestowing upon them his “mann ki baat”, Rahul has listened to his audience and candidly answered their questions, equally at ease in Hindi or English.

Modi, at all his diaspora events, announced to audiences that they could feel proud of being Indian only post-2014, negating everything that went before he became Prime Minister. This has angered NRIs. “India has always been widely respected in the world since Independence. It has been represented by educated, statesman prime ministers like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Dr Manmohan Singh,” said Gurminder Randhwa, an IT program manager and mother.

Though India had a large poor population, its image in the world post-Independence was of a strong, proud nation that believed in being self-sufficient. It became a nuclear power as long back as 1974 with Pokhran I, and by the end of the 20th century, it had become an emerging superpower. “I have always been proud of being Indian, in fact it is now that I feel ashamed because of all that has been happening over the last few years with rapes, mob lynchings, journalists being killed. And the PM does nothing to stop it and remains silent,” argued Dey, who migrated in 1993.

In contrast, Rahul told the diaspora that India is proud of every single one of them because of their hard work and achievements in a foreign land. “It is not easy to come and do what you have, make the sacrifices you have made,” he said addressing the elders.

The Indian diaspora in the UK currently numbers around 1.5 million. While most of them hold British passports and cannot vote in Indian elections, they are still influential in forming opinion through family and communities back home. Since 2015, Indian nationals living abroad have been allowed to vote in elections through e-ballot or by proxy. In 2019, these NRIs will make up a few lakh vital votes.

It is these NRIs who came to check out Rahul because they have much at stake back home. “Rahul came across as a sincere and down-to-earth person who wants to do good for his country, but it will be challenging for him to keep the Opposition happy,” said Dr Bajrang Singh, a doctor from Uxbridge, a west London township. Singh came to the UK in 2005 from Rajasthan and is adamant that in the upcoming election in his home state the BJP will be ousted.

So has Rahul convinced NRIs that he will make a good prime minister? After seeing him at LSE, some like Vikram Duhan of NISAU, UK, think he would. “We got the sense that he is a genuine, honest person. He has the vision, passion and openness needed for a prime minister,” said Duhan. Others, needless to say, still need a bit more convincing.