Choosing foreign soil, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi has declared that he is "absolutely ready" to be the party's prime ministerial candidate for the 2019 general elections.
However, he made it clear that the decision has to be finally approved by the party. Often under attack from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, over dynasty politics, Gandhi said it "is a problem in all political parties in India", but that was how "most of the country runs like". "Dynastic politics is a problem in all political parties. Akhilesh (Yadav, son of Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party), (M.K.) Stalin (son of M. Karunanidhi in DMK), Abhishek Bachchan (son of Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan)—are all examples of dynastic legacy, also (Mukesh and Anil) Ambani (son of Dhirubhai Ambani), that's how the entire country is running," Gandhi said. “Even (Prem Kumar) Dhumal's son (Anurag Thakur) is a dynast, so don't go just after me," he said.
"I am absolutely ready to do that," Gandhi, who is widely tipped to succeed his mother Sonia Gandhi as party President, said when he was asked during his talk on Monday night at the University of California, Berkeley, if he was ready to be the prime ministerial candidate of the Congress for the next Lok Sabha elections.
This is for the first time the Gandhi scion has publicly affirmed his readiness to be the Congress choice for the top post.
Gandhi, who is on a two-week US visit to interact with political leaders, global thinkers and overseas Indians, was speaking to students at the university where his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his speech in 1949.
In reply to the question about Congress' prime ministerial choice, Gandhi said it was not fair on his part to go public with that because the party has to approve it.
"...the way our party works. We have an internal system where we elect certain delegates who make that decision. We have an organisational election process that decides, and the process is currently ongoing.
"For me to say that the decision is mine would not be fair. That is the decision the Congress party has to make," the 47-year-old said.
Probed further by the moderator if he was open to the idea, Gandhi nodded his head in affirmation and said: "Yeah, sure."
Speaking at the event “India at 70: Reflections on the Path Forward”, Gandhi talked about a range of issues, including the Congress' loss in the 2014 general elections in which his party slid to its lowest tally ever in the Lok Sabha.
He admitted that "in around 2012, arrogance crept into the Congress and we stopped having conversations with people" that led to the party's loss in the last poll.
"For rebuilding the party, we need to design a vision that we can use moving forward. Most of what the BJP (government) is doing, is what we once said," Gandhi said citing the examples of the UPA government's MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) and the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
He accused PM Modi of controlling and managing an online machine of over a thousand trolls whose purpose is to destroy Rahul Gandhi's credibility and call him "stupid and incompetent".
"There is a BJP machine. A 1,000 guys sitting on computers telling you about me. It's a tremendous machine, all day they spread abuse about me, say that I'm a 'reluctant politician... and the operation is run by the gentleman who is running our country," said Gandhi.
He, however, acknowledged that Modi was a "better communicator" than he is.
"Modi has certain skills, he is a very good communicator, he's much better than me. He knows how to give a message to 3-4 different groups in a crowd, so his messaging ability is very effective and subtle."
Gandhi said the BJP's vision was flawed because it come from "top to bottom", while as the Congress constructed "a bottom-up vision".
He gave an example of dealing with the Kashmir issue and alleged that the government had opened up the space for terrorism in the state.
"When we started, terrorism was rampant in Kashmir. And when we finished by 2013, we basically broke the back of terror, I hugged (then) Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and told him it was one of the biggest achievements."
He also referred to the role of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) which is in power with the BJP as its alliance partner in the state, and said, "PDP was instrumental in bringing youngsters in politics, but the day Modi made alliance with PDP, he destroyed them (PDP)."
"So he (Modi) massively opened up space for the terrorists in Kashmir, and you saw the increase in violence," he added.
"For nine years, I worked behind the scenes with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram, Jairam Ramesh and others on the issue of Jammu & Kashmir," said Rahul Gandhi.
‘Demonetisation, hastily implemented GST damaged economy’
The Congress vice president criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi and said: “The government's economic policy of demonetisation and the hastily implemented GST has caused tremendous pressure on the economy."
Gandhi also said that the government's decision to scrap Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes has led to decline in economic growth. "It cost us two per cent loss in GDP (gross domestic product)," he said.
"Decisions like demonetisation which removed 86% of cash from circulation were done unilaterally, without asking the Chief Economic Advisor or the Cabinet or even Parliament; it (demonetisation) caused tremendous damage," he said. He also said that 30,000 new persons are joining the job market every single day and claimed that the government is only creating 500 jobs a day.
Taking a jibe at the Modi government as well as at China, he said: "The core constituency of right wing leaders are those who cannot get a job."
"Unlike China, India has to create jobs in a democratic environment. But India doesn't want or need China's coercive model," he added.
Slamming the BJP-led central government for the incidents of mob lynching and cow vigilantism that unleashed violence, Gandhi said, "I understand what violence does, violence against anybody is wrong."
"Hatred, anger and violence can destroy us, the politics of polarisation is dangerous," he said, adding that liberal journalists are being shot (referring to Kannada journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh's murder), people are being lynched.
"These incidents are making millions feel that they have no future in their country," Gandhi added.
He also said that the "idea of non-violence or 'ahimsa' is what has allowed this mass of people (India) to rise together and it is the only idea which can take humanity forward".
"I lost my father, my grandmother to violence; if I don't understand violence, then who will?" he asked referring to the assassination of his grandmother Indira Gandhi and his father Rajiv Gandhi.
Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, who was present in the audience during Gandhi's speech, tweeted: "A speech marked by acuity and passion, and a discussion infused with candour and insight."
BJP hits back at Rahul on dynasty politics
Hitting back at Rahul Gandhi for defending dynastic politics, the BJP on Tuesday reminded the Congress vice president that the top three constitutional posts in the country are held by common people with merit and that democracy is not beholden to dynasty.
"The fact that he (Gandhi) says that dynast and dynasty are the very fulcrum in India is itself an anomaly. The three dignitaries (President, Vice President and Prime Minister) in the highest constitutional positions today are in themselves an indication that Indian democracy thrives and gives opportunity to merit and is not beholden to dynasty," Union Minister and BJP leader Smriti Irani told a press conference.
Irani said that the Prime Minister was born in a village in Gujarat to a poor family, and elected to the post after receiving resounding support from the people of our country.
"The President (Ram Nath Kovind) was born in a marginalised family and has received the rank on his own merit. The Vice President, born in the family of a farmer after years of activism, is being blessed with leading the nation as the Vice President," she said.
The BJP leader also took on Gandhi for his remark in which he blamed arrogance for his party's decline in 2014 elections.
"The fact that Gandhi chooses to belittle the leadership of Sonia Gandhi is an issue for the Congress to introspect on. I shall say that it is not surprising that a dynast has absolutely no support; no kind or good words to speak about cooperative federalism which is very evident in Indian polity today," she said.
Irani said that a "failed dynast chose to speak about his failed political journeys in USA".
"The Congress Vice President has publicly proclaimed that under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, the Congress became arrogant. This confession made by Rahul Gandhi is something for the Congress to deal with. The fact that Gandhi chooses to belittle the Prime Minister is not surprising, in fact expected.
"But what is to be said is that after failing to connect with the people of India, Gandhi chooses a platform of convenience for berating his political opponents," she said.
PM Modi has insulted India on foreign soil, not Rahul Gandhi: Congress
The Congress on Tuesday said it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who "insulted" India on foreign soil, after the BJP accused Rahul Gandhi of belittling the Prime Minister in his speech at the University of California
"We are surprised at the criticism made by the government and the ruling party, it is unwarranted and unjustified. The statements and issues raised by Union Information and Broadcasting Minister (Smriti Irani) shows ignorance of history and her eagerness to be an apologist for the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi)," Congress leader Anand Sharma said on Tuesday.
"Rahul Gandhi spoke about India's achievements in the last 70 years. We understand why BJP is criticising him. If Rahul Gandhi is criticising the Prime Minister of the country, no one should have any objection to that. It's a feature of democracy," he said.
"It is the Prime Minister of India who is guilty of insulting India on international soil. The Prime Minister called the country corrupt on his first visit abroad and also said on another occasion that Indians used to feel ashamed to accept they are Indian on international soil," Sharma said.
He said it was a part of the ruling BJP’s intolerance towards criticism. "It is the streak of intolerance towards criticism by BJP and the present government," he said.