India’s main opposition leader has said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plans to change the country’s name from India to Bharat is “absurd”.
“He [Modi] wants to change the name of the country, which is absurd…,” Gandhi, who is on a five-day trip to Europe, told Al Jazeera in Brussels after being asked about India being changed to Bharat on G20 invitations.
The Modi government’s decision to replace the name with a Sanskrit word in dinner invitations for attendees of the two-day G20 summit in New Delhi led to a major uproar. Modi used Bharat in the G20 nameplate when the summit kicked off on Saturday.
Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress party, said the uproar over the name was a diversion tactic.
“It’s interesting that every time we raise the issue of Mr [Gautam] Adani and chronic capitalism, the prime minister comes out with some dramatic new diversion tactic,” the 53-year-old leader said.
The Congress party leader has accused Modi of favouring big industrialists and sought an investigation against the billionaire Adani, who controls the Adani Group, for alleged financial violations.
The Adani Group, which runs seaports and airports across India, has recently been in the limelight after an investigation revealed it used offshore tax havens to drive up its share price.
Gandhi is in Europe to meet European Union lawmakers, human rights defenders and people from the Indian diaspora in Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Norway.
The Congress leader told Al Jazeera that the government has “panicked” after more than two dozen parties last month joined hands to fight the general elections slated to be held next year on a common platform named INDIA – an acronym for Indian National Developmental, Inclusive Alliance.
“This name of the opposition alliance is a fantastic idea, because it represents exactly who we are. We consider ourselves to be the voice of India,” Gandhi told Al Jazeera.
While Modi’s visit to Europe has usually been accompanied by elaborate welcoming dance performances from the Indian diaspora and extensive press coverage, Gandhi’s visit has been relatively quiet.
Some in the EU have also questioned the timing of his visit, since most of the key leaders from the 27-member bloc are currently in the Indian subcontinent for the G20 summit.
“I am here to have a conversation with the Europeans and exchange ideas about what is going on in the EU and in India. So far, we discussed India and Europe’s relationship with EU parliamentarians, the subcontinent’s changing role in the global sphere and also gave them a sense of India’s challenges – which is a general sort of attack on our democratic institutions,” he told a press conference in Brussels.
While a strident critic of Modi, Ghandi rejected the narrative that by meeting with Modi, Western leaders were giving Hindu nationalism “a free pass”. Hindu nationalist groups have been accused of carrying out attacks on minorities, with dozens of Muslims lynched since Modi came to power in 2014. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has denied that it backs such attacks.
“I think G20 is an important conversation and it’s a good thing that India is hosting it,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Of course, there are issues in India that should be raised by the West. But I don’t think the framing that they are giving India a free pass is correct.”
Persecution against Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities in India has caught the global limelight in recent years.
While the United Nations and humanitarian groups have condemned New Delhi’s actions, the BJP has repeatedly pushed back against criticisms.
Gandhi also backed the Indian government’s balancing act on Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“India has a relationship with Russia, the United States and other countries. That’s normal and the opposition parties’ position on the war in Ukraine is in line with the Indian government,” he said.
An EU spokesperson confirmed that Gandhi met with officials from the bloc’s diplomatic body, the European External Actions Service, and discussed EU-India relations. But he refused to reveal further details.
However, Gandhi highlighted that conversations about democracy in India were discussed when pressed by journalists about the ongoing ethnic tensions in the northeastern state of Manipur. Critics have accused the Modi government of human rights violations and democratic backsliding.
The Congress leader has criticised Modi for dividing the officially secular country of 1.5 billion on religious lines. Last year, he launched the countrywide Bharat Jodo Yatra, or India’s unity march, to try to bring people together.
“I think one of the lessons that I learned in my walk recently was that there is an inherent and profound wisdom in the people of my country. Regardless of which part of society they’re in….,” he said.