SINGAPORE - A trailer of the pitched battle that is certain to grip India when it goes to the polls next year played out before an audience at the National University of Singapore on Thursday (March 8) when Mr Rahul Gandhi took questions from the floor.
Mr Gandhi, the son, grandson and great-grandson of a succession of prime ministers from the country's storied Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is in Singapore to court the influential Indian diaspora as his party gears up to challenge the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in general elections due to be held by May 2019.
"Why is it that during the years that your family ruled India, India's per capita income was growing at less than the world's average and has grown faster since your family relinquished power," charged a questioner who introduced himself as an economist and the writer of a book on economic history of Asia.
As the audience of nearly 300 students and professionals at the NUS Faculty of Law strained to hear Mr Gandhi's response, he seemed to take a measure of the questioner before shooting back: "And what is your hypothesis?
"Do you agree that India is a success today? And you are saying I have no role?"
Even as the moderator, Professor Danny Quah, the Acting Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, tried to encourage the questioners to keep the conversation cordial, the next questioner turned the tables.
"My India is lost, I can't find India on the map anymore," he said, asking Mr Gandhi to "restore" India to what it was before Mr Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.
Mr Gandhi, 47, seized the moment to try to rise above the fray and define himself as the moderate, liberal alternative to the nationalistic Mr Modi. "This conversation shows you the polarisation. That gentleman thinks nothing worthwhile has ever been done by the Congress party. This gentleman thinks everything has been done by the Congress party. Let me tell you what the truth is: India's success is hugely because of the Indian people... Anybody in this room who thinks that the Congress Party is not part of that success... needs to write a new book."
As the audience broke out in claps and whistles, he ticked off his party's achievements over the nearly four decades it was in power, from leading its independence struggle to achieving self sufficiency in food production and liberalising the economy.
"I feel no animosity towards somebody who says I have achieved nothing," he added. "I respect your opinion. I will contest it, if you come and have a serious conversation with me, I might even be able to convince you. But notice something else: You would never have the ability to say what you said to me in front of Mr Modi. .
"You are very important to me because you represent an opinion. And I respect that opinion."
In the hour-long discussion, Mr Gandhi raised the issue of rancour becoming a constant in politics worldwide. "Not just in India, but across the world, there are some people trying to win elections by using people's anger," he said, adding that the idea of India where everyone felt at home regardless of their religion, caste, and language was now being challenged.
During his two-day visit that concludes on Friday, Mr Gandhi is expected to call on Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam. On Thursday, he met Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and also held discussions with Temasek CEO Ho Ching and its board, as well as with entrepreneurs of Indian origin.
His next stop is Malaysia, where he is slated to meet Prime Minister Najib Razak as well as members of the Indian community, Mr Milind Deora, an Indian lawmaker coordinating the trip, told The Straits Times.
The trip comes a week ahead of a plenary session of his party which will ratify his election as party president three months ago and chalk out strategies to thwart Mr Modi's bid for a second term in office.
After suffering reverses in recent legislative elections in three north-eastern Indian states, Congress is next faced with a tough election fight to retain its hold in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, home to India's Silicon Valley, Bengaluru.