New York, NY – As the radiant glow of the afternoon sun bathed the towering skyscrapers of New York City in warm hues, the Javits Center stood in all its majestic splendor, ready to host a leader who, buoyed by his recent electoral triumphs, is trying to stand tall in terms of power and influence. The air crackled with anticipation as distinguished guests from the diaspora and fervent admirers gathered within the halls, awaiting the arrival of a charismatic political figure. Today, the center’s grandeur was set to play host to Rahul Gandhi, the enigmatic Indian leader, whose presence promised to ignite the afternoon with intellectual fervor and captivating charisma.
The ambiance enveloped me like a warm embrace as I stepped into the foyer. The gentle hum of conversation permeated the air, mingling with the rhythmic chants of “Jodo Jodo Bharat Jodo” and the melodic refrain of “Nafrat ke bazaar mein mohabbat ki dukaan,” voices intermingled, carrying the messages of unity and love that have become the theme of Rahul’s visit. The room buzzed with excitement, the eager faces of attendees reflecting a sense of hopeful curiosity as if they were on the cusp of uncovering profound truths.
A gathering of over 3000 NRIs, predominantly above the age of 50, comprised the audience, among them long-standing Congress supporters who had languished in obscurity since 2014. The manner in which Rahul Gandhi graced the occasion resonated deeply with their sense of identity and yearning for recognition.
In the main hall, eager attendees hastened to secure front-row seats, aching to be in proximity to the dais, in their pursuit of an intimate glimpse at a leader they firmly believe will ascend to the position of India’s Prime Minister as early as 2024.
The stage, meticulously arranged, with a big screen, flashed videos and pictures of Rahul’s Bharat Jodo yatra. The future of India is billed as a canvas of possibilities, adorned with a backdrop showcasing the vibrant colors of India, echoing the kaleidoscope of cultures and diversity that Rahul Gandhi embodied.
Commencing at 3:30 PM, an hour past the stipulated time, the event began with an unexpected entrance by Congress leader Mani Shankar Iyer. His presence aimed to assuage the mounting restlessness among the attendees. Taking the stage, he delivered an impromptu speech in Hindi, revisiting the purpose of Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the United States and emphasizing that this was the long-awaited moment for him to shine.
As Rahul arrived around 4:20 PM, a hush fell over the crowd, each heartbeat synchronizing in anticipation. Rahul walked in with Indian Overseas Congress leaders Sam Pitroda and others, including Mohinder Singh Gilizan, Aarti Krishna, Dr. Kota Nilima, and George Abraham. Gandhi, his charisma palpable as he strode into the room. His stride was purposeful, yet his warm smile conveyed a sense of approachability and genuine connection. The room exhaled a collective breath, captivated by his presence.
The distinguished presence of prominent leaders from various states of India further underscored the occasion’s significance. Among them were esteemed figures such as Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee President Amarinder Singh Raja, Telangana Pradesh Committee Chairman Hemanta Reddy, and President of Andhra Pradesh Congress Committee Rudra Raju. Their attendance added weight, highlighting its importance on a national scale.
Amidst a series of formalities and introductions, Sam Pitroda’s speech had to be curtailed as Rahul Gandhi astutely sensed the audience’s mood. With a determined stride, Rahul approached the lectern, brimming with enthusiasm to address the eagerly awaiting attendees.
The resonant timbre of Gandhi’s voice filled the hall, reverberating with his profound ideas and heartfelt convictions. With each word, he painted vivid portraits of a brighter future, enlivening the hearts of all those fortunate enough to witness this moment. In a heartfelt reaffirmation, Rahul Gandhi emphasized that his US tour was centered on the essence of love. With conviction, he highlighted the stark contrast between his ideology and that of his opponents, passionately articulating his vision for India to the NRI audience. Drawing upon the power of symbolism, he referred to Mahatma Gandhi as the paramount NRI in history, invoking the ideals of the revered leader to resonate with the hearts of those in attendance. With unwavering belief, Rahul painted a vivid picture of an India that stood united, driven by the forces of unity and love.
As I absorbed the scene, I couldn’t help but notice the rapt expressions of the audience. Their eyes shone with a mix of admiration and inspiration, their phones eager to capture each moment. As I conversed with attendees at the event, it became apparent that many had come with a deep desire to witness Rahul Gandhi in person. They acknowledged that such proximity to him was a rarity in India, making this occasion all the more significant. For some, their curiosity stemmed from the need to ascertain whether the media’s portrayal of him genuinely aligned with his authentic self. One individual I encountered was a 73-year-old Gujarati lady who had migrated from Bhavnagar to the US in the early 1970s. She candidly expressed her support for Indian Prime Minister Modi but attended the event with the sole purpose of catching a glimpse of the grandson of Indira Gandhi and capturing a photograph alongside him. Her presence exemplified the multifaceted sentiments and connections that drew people to witness this momentous gathering.
Aarzoo, a 42-year-old woman, embarked on a three-hour journey from Philadelphia, accompanied by her husband and two daughters. Their purpose was clear—to demonstrate their unwavering support for the Congress party. Aarzoo expressed her concerns about the portrayal of India, particularly its treatment of minorities, in Western media. Her presence at the event was a powerful gesture, signifying her determination to stand by the Congress party and advocate for the values of inclusivity and equality. By attending and showing her support, Aarzoo aimed to make her voice heard and contribute to the collective effort to foster a more tolerant and inclusive India.
Shubh Chaturvedi, a 23-year-old recent New Jersey Institute of Information Technology graduate, held a different perspective on the event. With a keen interest in understanding the specific changes and policies that Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party had to offer for driving growth and employment in India, Shubh felt that the event fell below his expectations. He viewed it primarily as a political gathering aimed at showcasing NRI support to the Indian masses, rather than providing concrete solutions and policy proposals.
Reflecting on his experience, Shubh compared the current event to the 2014 Madison Square Garden Rally, which he had vividly witnessed as a 14-year-old on television. He recalled how the then-Prime Minister had addressed pressing issues and presented solutions that left a lasting impact. In contrast, he felt that today’s event paled in comparison, lacking the depth and substance he had hoped for. Shubh’s viewpoint highlighted attendees’ varying expectations and perspectives, illustrating the audience’s diversity of opinions and their desire for more concrete policy discussions.
Sheela, a successful businesswoman running a women-owned business in New Jersey, was filled with admiration for Rahul Gandhi. Having been privileged to attend a private dinner with him the day before, she couldn’t contain her excitement and expressed her belief in the possibility of seeing him as the Prime Minister of India as early as 2024. Inspired by Rahul’s speech at the event, she said she found hope in the potential to overcome the forces of division. Sheela detected glimpses of Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father, in his demeanor and saw in him the potential to lead the country with vision and integrity. Wishing him luck for the upcoming elections, she remained optimistic about the positive change Rahul Gandhi could bring if given the opportunity to serve as Prime Minister.
The jubilant Congress party supporters, bolstered by the recent victory in Karnataka, found their spirits elevated as they embraced the optimism emanating from Rahul Gandhi. As the event drew to a close, and the applause reverberated throughout the hall, the audience rose to their feet, their ovation a testament to Rahul Gandhi’s impact. He had transcended the role of a mere politician and, for the moment, became a beacon of hope and inspiration for the congress party supporters. At that moment, the Javits Center felt imbued with a renewed sense of purpose and possibility, its walls echoing with the echoes of Gandhi’s powerful message.
The Rahul Gandhi Javits Center event marked the culmination of a whirlwind five-day tour meticulously orchestrated by one of his closest advisors, Sam Pitroda, in collaboration with the Indian Overseas Congress. This comprehensive tour encompassed a remarkable itinerary of over 11 public and private engagements. Its overarching aim was to facilitate a direct connection between Rahul Gandhi and the NRI audience, a demographic that predominantly lends its support to Indian Prime Minister Modi and the BJP.
In an exclusive conversation with me, Virendra Vashist, the Indian Overseas Congress Secretary, shared that he had managed a mere 20 hours of sleep in the past week. Nevertheless, he exuded pride as he affirmed that Rahul Gandhi’s tour of the United States had triumphed in its objectives. “The tour had succeeded in bridging divides, appealing to people from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds, as evidenced by Rahul Gandhi’s resounding message of “nafrat ke bazaar mein mohabbat ki dukaan” (a shop of love in the marketplace of hate), which had paved the way for the launch of the Quit Hate movement for India. “
Per Vashisht, “This tour had thus proven to be a resounding success, breaking barriers and resonating with audiences far and wide, as Rahul Gandhi’s magnetic presence and poignant message left an indelible mark on the hearts of those who witnessed it firsthand.”
As I departed from the center, it was evident that Rahul Gandhi’s supporters were brimming with a revitalized sense of cautious optimism. For many, this gathering transcended the realm of mere politics; it had become a transformative experience, affording them the privilege of witnessing their leader fearlessly confronting the world’s largest political party. However, there were those who remained acutely aware of the widespread support for the BJP, both in India and abroad, urging caution against expecting an overnight shift in the hearts of millions. With the Prime Minister’s impending visit to the US in less than 15 days, the stage is set for an intriguing launch toward the 2024 elections, making the road ahead a captivating journey to behold.
Rohit Sharma is a Senior Journalist who has lived in Washington DC since 2007. He currently is a contributor to Dainik Bhaskar, the world's third largest newspaper by readership. His opinion pieces feature on News 9 and The Quint. He has been invited as guest on the BBC, NDTV, India Today, AajTak, Times Now, Republic, Zee news and others. His work has featured in six Indian Languages.