NEW DELHI: After two foreign organisations criticised India on freedom and democracy, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday said the "situation is much worse than they have imagined".
He also said he was protecting a certain ideology in the Congress party and would not step aside just because someone else does not like it and continue to fight the RSS.
He also said he favoured internal democracy in the Congress and has promoted many leaders within the party.
In an online interaction with Professor Ashutosh Varshney of the Brown University in the US, Gandhi said electoral democracy can be "destroyed" in the 21st century if one can control the social media and institutions and has financial dominance, while citing the examples of Saddam Hussain and Muammar Gaddafi.
Asked about Sweden's V-Dem Institute's democracy report that has downgraded India from the "world's largest democracy" to an "electoral autocracy" and the US government-funded NGO, Freedom House, downgrading the country's status from "free" to "partly free", he said these foreign institutions have their view, but "frankly, we do not need a stamp from them".
Live: My interaction with Prof Ashutosh Varshney, faculty & students of Brown University. https://t.co/1goKjIgp9H— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) March 16, 2021
Gandhi, however, added that directionally, what they are saying is "correct".
"I would add one thing. I would say they are much behind the curve. I think the situation is actually much worse than they imagined," he said.
The government has strongly rebutted the Freedom House report and called it "misleading, incorrect and misplaced", while asserting that the country has well-established democratic practices.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has also slammed global bodies for their "hypocrisy" and called them "self-appointed custodians of the world, who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval".
During his interaction with Varshney and the students and faculty members of the Brown University, Gandhi said one cannot separate electoral democracy from institutional frameworks.
"An election is not simply about people going and pressing a button on a voting machine. An election is about narrative, about institutions that make sure that the framework in the country is operating properly, an election is about a judiciary that is being fair, an election is about a debate that is taking place in Parliament. So you need those things for the vote to count," he said, noting that even Saddam Hussain and Gaddafi used to have elections and win those, but there was no institutional framework to protect that vote.
Asked whether he would step aside and allow others to become leaders in the party, the former Congress chief said he is fighting an ideological war and would continue to do so.
"I believe in certain ideas and I defend those ideas. I do not really care what my name is or who my grandfather was. There are certain ideas that I defend and I am going to defend them, whether anybody likes it or not," he said.
Gandhi said nobody from his family has been the prime minister since 1989, "but there is an obsession that somehow we are in power".
"I have a role to play in the Congress. I defend a particular ideological colour in the Congress. I am certainly not going to say thank you very much, I will not defend that ideological position in the Congress just because I happen to be so and so's son. Why should I?" he asked.
"If you had said to me to step aside when I was not facing the RSS, I would be like yes, I could do that. But if you say that there is this monster that is coming at the ideas that I believe in, then I would say no, I would not back down," he said.
On a question on should others become leaders in the Congress, Gandhi said, "Absolutely, 100 per cent. I am more than happy to push as many leaders as possible and make as many of them successful and that is my record...that is all I do all day long. I push people and push them forward."
He said he has been pushing for elections in the party from day one and has been mauled in the press because he wants elections.
"It is interesting to me that when I am pushing for internal democracy, everybody is saying do not do it," Gandhi said, adding that neither the BJP nor the BSP or any other political party has elections.
"But I believe we have a bigger responsibility and we should have internal elections," he said.
To another question from Varshney, Gandhi said with modern technology coming in, if one controls WhatsApp and Facebook, one does not need to attack the vote as one can control the narrative.
"You can destroy an electoral democracy in the 21st century if you have got Facebook, WhatsApp, if you have financial dominance and if you control the institutions, why wouldn't you let people just go and vote...just keep that pretense," he said.
Gandhi alleged that the RSS has captured India's institutions and it has been doing so openly since 2014, when the BJP came to power at the Centre.
"It is very obvious to me that the institutions allowed a negotiation between our identities, cultures, languages. What I see is a determined attack on those institutions and a capture of those institutions," he noted.
Asked if the situation is comparable to the US, Gandhi said there are elements of that taking place in the US.
"I am nobody to comment on the US....But my sense is that the American institutions are showing much more resilience than the Indian ones. I get the sense that the American system is countering this onslaught better than our system," he said.