What the Bharat Jodo Yatra will mean for Rahul Gandhi and the Congress
New Delhi: In his eighteen years in politics, Rahul Gandhi has been a vice president and president of the Congress, a Member of Parliament (MP) who represented two states, a disruptor, and even a “sipahi” of tribals. Now, he will try to be a yatri.
On Wednesday, he flagged off the longest political yatra of Independent India, the Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India march). Spanning 3,500 km, it starts from the southernmost tip of Kanyakumari and ends in Kashmir.
And before he embarked on this marathon walk, Gandhi spent time at the Vivekananda rock memorial, the first such connect to the Hindu philosopher’s legacy. A senior Congress leader said, “Gandhi initially had some doubts. But he was told that his grandmother, late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi too, had been there and offered flowers.”
If his trip to the Vivekananda memorial is about recognising the Hindu leader — who is also the ideological lighthouse for Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi and many other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders — the visit to K Kamaraj memorial may resonate better with Gandhi’s politics. While Kamaraj advocated that senior leaders must quit posts and work to revitalise the Congress, Gandhi faces a challenge from G23 — a group primarily of seniors who are critical of his decision-making and don’t want to see him as the party president. These veterans have not helped him revitalise the party either.
And as Rahul starts his biggest political event, his supporters and critics alike possibly have one question in mind: Where do Rahul Gandhi and the Congress go from here?
Prospects of the yatra
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who will join the yatra at a later stage, said “it is a transformational moment in Indian politics.” The party’s communication head, Jairam Ramesh, hoped the yatra will “transform public discourse and bring the Congress closer to voices of the ground”.
The BJP’s national information and technology department head Amit Malviya, however, is sceptical. On September 7, he tweeted:
If the yatra can maintain its momentum, which is a major challenge, it can offer substantial benefits. Travelling across 3,500 km and meeting hundreds and thousands of people on the way will be the party’s largest outreach at the grass-roots. And, ahead of the 2024 elections, the Congress will cover 12 states and two Union Territories in a unique campaign.
What does this yatra mean for Rahul Gandhi?
Earlier this year, during an informal chat, a top-ranking Congress strategist asked Gandhi why he doesn’t meet party leaders more regularly. “Gandhi”, according to the strategist, “said when he meets leaders they mostly talk about tickets for election.” In the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting after the Congress lost elections in Punjab and four other states, senior Congressman Digvijaya Singh told Gandhi, “you need to be more accessible to party workers and leaders.”
This yatra, expected to run for 150 days, will host Gandhi’s extensive interactions with people, activists, and party workers. It will be Rahul Gandhi’s longest campaign and the most intense public outreach programme. And two years before the next general election, it can shatter some myths about the Congress scion who will walk for five hours daily and sleep in a container turned into a mobile home.
On September 7, Tamil Nadu chief minister (CM) MK Stalin tweeted:
The CM handed over a hand-made national flag to Gandhi at Kanyakumari’s Gandhi Mandapam on Wednesday.
However, even though, in politics, one week is often sufficient to change fortunes, a yatra may not be enough to transform Gandhi into a formidable challenger to PM Modi. But this mass connect programme can bring more openness, help gain a deeper knowledge about various parts of the country, and, most importantly, reaffirm his position as the top Congress leader, temporarily silencing his critics.
A history of yatras
India is no stranger to political yatris. When the Congress searched for the chief architect of the yatra, it quickly zeroed in on Digvijaya Singh, the former Madhya Pradesh CM who undertook a 192-day-long Narmada Parikrama yatra in 2018. Another Congress leader YS Rajasekhara Reddy, covered 1,475 km in a yatra across undivided Andhra Pradesh and reaped the political benefits of it. In 2004, he became the CM of Andhra Pradesh, and the Congress too, did well in the 2004 general elections.
Mahatma Gandhi’s historic Dandi march in 1930 remains the greatest yatra for millions of Indians, but this wasn’t the only inspiration for the Congress — former PM Chandrasekhar’s Bharat yatra. It started from Kanyakumari too, but ended at Rajghat, covering 4,260 km in six months in 1983. It was referenced several times during the planning of the Bharat Jodo Yatra and a Congress leader even said, “people remember Chandrasekhar more for his yatra than for his tenure as the PM.”
In Lal Krishna Advani, a frequent yatri, the BJP found its greatest source to mobilise people. The Ram Rath yatra, in a van decorated as a chariot, Advani started from Somnath in Gujarat with the plan to end at Ayodhya. It stoked religious sentiments across various states, and created the Ayodhya movement, but before Advani could cross Bihar and enter Uttar Pradesh, then Bihar CM Lalu Prasad arrested him. The yatra, a political catalyst, led to the BJP’s phenomenal growth in Indian politics. From a party of 85 MPs in 1989, the BJP went up to 120 seats in the 1991 elections.
Yatra and the 2024 election
On Friday, Rahul Gandhi told a bunch of journalists that the Bharat Jodo Yatra will help him become “wiser” (“I will be wiser”, Rahul said) and that this long journey — that focuses more on small towns and villages and carefully avoids big cities — can help him get “better understanding” of himself and the country.
However, leading the Congress to victory in the next general election will be a different battle. And so far, Gandhi’s track record as a mass leader as well as a vote-catcher has not been inspiring.
For 2024, the Congress has an uphill task to improve its strike rate in six states where it is the primary Opposition party against the BJP. It also needs to tackle the emerging challenge from Aam Aadmi Party, the political “startup” with as many state governments as the Congress. and finally, it needs to create a formidable alliance with regional parties who have been successful in halting the BJP’s march in their respective states.
And for all these challenges, a yatra is perhaps not sufficient.
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