Rahul Gandhi’s ongoing two-week visit to the United States is a belated attempt by the Congress to compete with the Bharatiya Janata Party for the goodwill of the Indian diaspora.

The Congress vice president began his tour with an address to students at the University of California, Berkeley, on Tuesday. Gandhi is set to meet with a host of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, civil society representatives, think tanks and experts in California, and then travel to Washington DC. The tour is scheduled to end with Gandhi meeting about 2,000 prominent members of the Indian community at New York’s Marriott Hotel on September 20. Gandhi is accompanied by former ministers Shashi Tharoor and Milind Deora.

At home, though, Gandhi is facing criticism for taking off on yet another foreign visit when the Congress should be preparing for Assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, leaving the party’s leaders at pains to point out that this is no pleasure trip and that it is necessary for Gandhi to connect with overseas Indians. In fact, Congress leaders emphasised that their party’s outreach to Indian-Americans was long overdue, not least because the BJP has spared little effort in wooing the community. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used his highly-publicised meetings with the Indian diaspora to showcase his mass following outside the country, starting with the mega rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden on his first visit to the United States in 2014. Such programmes have become a hallmark of his foreign trips.

“Overseas Indians wield considerable influence in the American establishment and in India,” said Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala. “It is, therefore, important to connect with them.”

Another leader said it was necessary to activate the Congress Overseas Congress units, which have become defunct over the years. The leader pointed out that while the Congress ignored overseas Indians, its rivals, particularly the BJP and lately the Aam Admi Party, acquired a large fan following in the community. Gandhi’s outreach is aimed at rectifying this. “There was a view in the community that the Congress had forgotten them or was not interested in them,” the leader explained. “We needed to correct this perception.”

Renewing old ties

The US, Britain and many African nations are home to sizeable populations of Gujaratis, who are considered to be ardent Modi supporters. A senior Congress leader said the party needs to talk to them, and also reach out to other communities such as the Punjabis, Sikhs, Kannadigas and Telugus.

Former minister Selja Kumari, though, insists that Gandhi’s US visit should be seen as a “some kind of competition with the BJP”. The Congress, and especially the Gandhi family, has always enjoyed huge support among overseas Indians, she claimed. “Rahul Gandhi’s visit is in keeping with similar work undertaken by earlier Congress leaders,” she said. Selja is particularly happy that the Congress vice president is “interacting with students, since universities have a tradition of liberal thought”. This is especially significant, she added, given the sharp ideological polarisation that is being effected in India.

While Gandhi’s US tour has generally met with approval from Congress leaders, there is no dearth of detractors either. Some of these critics, unhappy with his regular foreign jaunts, argued that instead of seeking approval from the Indian diaspora, Gandhi should prioritise winning the confidence of the electorate back home. “We need to put our house in order first,” said a senior Congress leader who asked not to be identified.

The critics pointed out that over three years after the Congress slumped to its lowest tally in the Lok Sabha and lost a string of Assembly elections, the party is showing no signs of revival. While its senior leaders appear jaded, the second-rung leadership is nondescript. The faction-ridden state units are in a shambles, unable to put up even a semblance of a fight against the rivals. Although it is an accepted fact that Gandhi will eventually take over as Congress president, there is unease among the cadre about his ability to lead the party against such a formidable opponent as the BJP. “Rahul Gandhi may make an impression abroad,” remarked a Congress leader, “but he has to first prove his mettle in India.”