This Article is From Aug 25, 2018

What Rahul Gandhi Said To LSE Students - By Andrew Whitehead

Rahul Gandhi chose a meeting with Indian students in London to deliver a clarion call for change in the Congress party, placing blame on its old guard for the 2014 election debacle.

The party had been hampered in that contest, he said, by "an internal fight between older and younger generations". It had fallen victim to "arrogance". 

While acknowledging that there was "a lot of value" in "senior people" in the party, Gandhi insisted there had to be "a merger of the future and the past". He pointed to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra as states where this sort of change is already underway.

This uncomfortable message was delivered with more passion and determination than the Congress president normally conjures up. The packed "by invitation only" meeting at the London School of Economics had been organised by the non-party National Indian Students and Alumni Union in the UK. Billed as an 'India Town Hall', the venue was about as far removed as can be from a desi civic building, with 600 people crowding into a cavernous, subterranean LSE lecture hall. 

After a low-key opening, Rahul Gandhi warmed to the occasion - at times speaking with an intensity and enthusiasm which challenges the notion that he's a reluctant politician. At one point, he rose from his chair and strode confidently across the stage while fielding questions from the audience - until it was pointed out that he was wandering out of camera shot.

"The BJP/RSS is very clear what they stand for - there's no confusion. The Congress party has not kept pace," Gandhi told the students, who came from universities across Britain. "Congress over time closed itself off; it needs to start to open itself. We need to be precise about what exactly we stand for."

To win next year's election, the party needs to bring in "millions of Indian youngsters who deeply buy into the Congress idea...The tragedy is you can't easily come into the organisation." And in a comment which went down well with those attending, he lamented that there were "simply not enough talented, capable youngsters in the political system." 

Rahul Gandhi described India's coming election as "pretty straight forward: the BJP on one side and the entire opposition on the other". He accused the Modi government of a systematic attack on India's institutions. "For the first time, an organisation is challenging the very concept of India," he declared. 

Talks were underway with other opposition parties about a minimum programme, he suggested, without being drawn on the detail - or on who might be put forward as prime minister. "We have agreed our first priority is to defeat the BJP. Once that's done, we can have other conversations."

On specific policies, Gandhi had conspicuously little to say - beyond a defence of the reforms introduced by previous Congress governments. The single most effective means of tackling corruption was right to information legislation, he insisted, but that had been "weakened and destroyed" by the BJP. The spurt of economic growth in rural areas was largely down to the rural employment guarantee scheme and the tackling of farmer indebtedness, two landmarks policies of the Manmohan Singh administration.

He pointed to greater support for farmers, creating jobs and also extending health care - which he described as "the next revolution in India" - as key policy priorities. But when pressed on what a Congress-led government would seek to achieve in rural areas, the Congress president was distinctly short of detail. "My job is to ask the Indian farmer: what do you need?" It felt a touch evasive from a politician who boasted to his audience of 15 years of front-line experience.

The student-focussed gathering was among the most outward-facing of the events lined up for Rahul Gandhi in a crowded two-day schedule in the British capital. He seemed much more in his element than earlier in the day.

A meeting in the Houses of Parliament fell a little flat. Parliament is in recess and most British MPs are either in their constituencies or on holiday. Only a handful of Labour MPs came along - one of whom later damned the Congress leader with faint praise, describing his performance as "reasonable". Rahul Gandhi had the "opportunity do to better than he did," the MP suggested. "He lacks experience. He needs one more term as leader of the opposition."

Among the students at the LSE event, there was a consensus that Rahul Gandhi had exceeded their expectations - and at times he drew bursts of laughter and enthusiastic applause. "I'm not a Rahul Gandhi fan," one woman student said as she was leaving. "But I was quite taken by him tonight."

(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent.)

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