Has Rahul Gandhi reformed his popular image as the Bharat Jodo Yatra concluded on Monday, January 30?
Explicitly packaged for ‘Rahul to discover India’ and ‘India to (re)discover Rahul’, the yatra may have appeared to be reasonably successful in that particular effort. But, perhaps as an ‘alternative political project’, built with lots of resources and public relations effort, it is difficult to ascertain the real meaning and consequential purpose of a journey that made an entitled being, with no official role or position in a party, to walk from ‘Kanyakumari to Kashmir’ spanning a distance of nearly 3,500 km over the course of about 150 days.
Yes, symbolically and ideologically, the meaning of this Yatra to reimagine the grand old party’s political messaging and to discuss some of the more complex issues in a deeply polarised socio-political state, beyond electoral compulsions, has been well noted by many political observers and commentators. Still, in evaluating the consequential effect of ‘the journey’ itself, a key question arises: to what extent is this long journey likely to (re)discover the party’s own performative role in Indian politics going forward?
Objectives of the Yatra
The Indian National Congress (INC) both, with and without Rahul Gandhi, has continued to struggle as a political alternative not only at the national level but across all Indian states where it has faced an election in the recent past. State after state Congress’s electoral prospects – even while the Yatra was on – witnessed a decline in terms of vote share and a deep state of erosion for the Congress, which is in the opposition.
In Gujarat, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) swept away most of the Congress’ vote base and almost decimated the party’s presence as the principal opposition party to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) there. In Himachal Pradesh – as this author earlier argued – an anti-incumbent result in favour of the Congress party was more of an exception than the norm for the party’s overall organisational capability to counter the BJP bandwagon.
Even in states like Rajasthan, where the Congress has been in power, the conflicted state of internal-party unity, broken organisational structure, an absence of a chief ministerial face for the next election cycle (amidst the Pilot-Gehlot feud), when accompanied by a lack of a cohesive vision for the party’s own future in the state, presents a blur.
Still, taking a step back, to analyse the Yatra from a broader reflection, beyond seeing it as a PR exercise aimed at repackaging Rahul Gandhi’s popular image amongst people, the Yatra did appear to have two other key party-centric objectives:
- to (re)unite India at a time when its social core and fraternal fabric have been deeply eroded by BJP’s continued politics of hate and communal mobilisation,
- to rejuvenate the Congress party.
Has Congress re-energised?
On the second objective first, it is probably wise to insinuate that any national-level opposition space to counter and defeat the BJP would require the Congress to play a crucial role (no matter how many fractured coalitions might be built out of regional parties). Any effort made to rejuvenate the grand old party in decline, while seeking to cohesively unite the electorate (the people) must be acknowledged as a valuable effort.
However, even after a good 150 days of the Padayatra, one doesn’t know to what extent the Yatra has managed to achieve this.
As Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued a few weeks ago:
“The success or failure of the Yatra will not be decided by endorsements, but politically. How many hearts and minds the Yatra converts is an open question. At an elite level, it does not seem to have moved many who were not already sympathetic. But the conduct of other political actors is a proxy test of the political success of the Yatra. The Yatra may have energised Congress workers in some states. But there is little sign that it has given the party momentum. If anything, the factionalism in Congress, even in states where it has the best chance, Rajasthan and Karnataka, is making Congress’ position less strong than it should be. Just witness Rajasthan. It is also a function of their lack of confidence in the highest levels of leadership. Will this Yatra restore that confidence in full measure?”
Most, within the party, may also ask the question: Of what consequential importance does Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra hold for their own electoral prospects in the upcoming polls when one is not even sure who Rahul Gandhi’s main constituents (or intended audience) are? Also, two of the key voting groups across India: women and the youth (say, first-time voters) have remained less visible amongst the people seen during the Yatra.
One may even ask what role Rahul Gandhi would assume within the party going forward. With Kharge as the Congress president, Rahul Gandhi’s position in the party remains unclear: a morality preacher or an academic-ideologue within the Congress Party? This uncertainty over his role triggers much confusion and a lack of confidence in the higher command’s own role in reviving the party forward (one doesn’t even know if the Gandhis will continue to enjoy the unwavering faith in the party’s organisational core the way they did before).
Assuming Rahul Gandhi was to end the Yatra by announcing a greater role of responsibility in the party (say, for the 2024 polls), that too may help change this perception somewhat – but for that, one will need to wait and see.
Any dent to RSS-BJP politics?
On the first of the above-mentioned two objectives – which is reuniting India – one isn’t sure if the Yatra did any good to galvanise popular support. Yes, by directly taking on the deeply authoritarian, communal politics of the RSS-BJP, Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra and his press conferences helped present an alternative political route/option for those voters who are/were politically Left or the Centre, and those who were beginning to lose hope from India’s political opposition to effectively counter the BJP in a narrative-building exercise.
Having said that, the real test of the Yatra’s message of ‘unity’, social harmony for its electoral meaning may be determined by how rural voters (or those who vote in larger numbers across districts of states in electoral battle) would cast their votes (especially in 2024). So far, there is little reflection of any serious wave that the Padayatra could have triggered amongst voters, to cause any serious electoral change.
Therefore, in reflection, the Yatra’s success seems to have been limited to its ‘virtue signaling’ effort amongst a small section of people, who either decided to join it on the ground or supported it over social media. Any consequential popular conscious change, emerging from the completion of Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra didn’t really happen.
Nandini Sundar’s scathing open letter to Rahul Gandhi also speaks of the double standards exhibited by the leader and his own party’s administration in Chhattisgarh-observed to be engaged in subjugating the agency and voice of the Adivasi community in Bastar and other parts of Chhattisgarh.
Furthermore, as Suhas Palshikar recently argued:
“The more pertinent issue is the limits of the message that the Yatra has been able to put across. This is for three reasons. First is the nearly unabated popularity of the prime minister. Because he is popular, any discussion of an alternative imagination falls into the trap of addressing the criticism at him and once that is done, the reception becomes limited only to those who are not attracted by the voodoo of the prime minister. Secondly, and related to the first, the Yatra offers criticism of the regime in a highly abstract or academic manner. This often fails to connect with the audience.
But more importantly, the idea of Bharat Jodo does not seem to move beyond clichés and attractive optics. These are indeed important but evocative and yet substantive messaging seems to be in short supply….Never before in the past hundred years, despite the caste struggles and the communal carnage at the time of Partition, did India appear so disparate, broken and incoherent. It has become an overlapping mosaic of injustices and unconcern. Does the Yatra frontally address this problem? Does it offer non-state pathways for citizens to address it? Does it have the ideological repertoire to reform the state so that it will not be complicit in these maladies?”
Observing this, all one can say is as the long 150-day Yatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir comes to an end this January 30: it still leaves Indians (like myself) with more unanswered questions than clarity.
Deepanshu Mohan is director of the Centre for New Economics Studies, OP Jindal University.