This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra is coming to an end – on January 30, it will conclude in Kashmir. By then, Rahul Gandhi would have been walking for nearly five months, starting from Kanyakumari and passing through many states, gathering enthusiastic crowds along the way.
Ignored by the big media, mocked by the BJP, and with several hurdles along the way – warnings of COVID-19 infections because of the crowds – he nonetheless kept on walking, often, it is said, covering over 20 kilometres a day. All the time wearing that white t-shirt, which has now become a sort of trademark. He smiled, hugged, talked to the press, and grew a bushy beard – the optics of the whole exercise are difficult to ignore.
Despite not getting much coverage in the big media, there was no dearth of people who joined in – young, old, well-off, poor, celebrities and others. There was no lack of commentary in the alternative media and online, including by media pundits who opined that this effort was not likely to end the problems of the Congress and nor was it going to win elections.
That is still some time away, but one thing is certain – the Yatra has once and for all ended the whole ‘Pappu’ narrative. For years, a whole industry had been operating just to portray the Gandhi scion as a clueless ignoramus, especially when it came to politics, who owed his position only because he was a dynast. Everything he said or did was rubbished, never mind if he often made a lot of sense – a good example being his early warnings in January 2020 about the emergence of COVID-19 and the need for taking steps to stop it spreading. But that was the time when US President Donald Trump was to come and the government seemed relaxed, only to impose a sudden lockdown in March, causing immense hardship to millions of people.
Rahul Gandhi is a favourite target of not just those who are against his party, but also well-meaning and self-proclaimed ‘neutrals’, mainly urbanites, who insist they didn’t support the BJP but can’t see any alternative. “Rahul is simply not up to it,” they say. Part of it is because the Congress has done poorly in two general elections and many state elections, where, even after winning, has lost its MLAs to the BJP. So they don’t see it as an alternative to the BJP. This is true enough, because the Congress can’t seem to get its act together and devise a workable strategy to win and then to give to its MLA. But it was the ‘Pappu’ image that became so entrenched that people were convinced that he had nothing to offer.
That image is now gone. It is clear that Rahul Gandhi is not without substance. The Yatra has transformed his image into someone who has something different to offer – a vision centred around harmony, in a country that is being riven by hatred and hostility.
What he has also done is established that concentrating all guns on him is pointless. “I have killed Rahul Gandhi. He exists only in your mind and the BJP’s mind,” he told the press. Get out of your Rahul Gandhi obsession, he told them.
Expecting him to create miracles in elections would therefore be wrong. He had insisted he was not interested in the presidentship of the Congress and stayed out of the race. The responsibility of elections now is not on his shoulders.
The lampooning of Gandhi won’t stop of course. Implicit in it is the suggestion that he doesn’t compare with Narendra Modi, who is a decisive, wise, visionary leader with strong oratorial skills. Plus, he has led his party to two big election victories. Many of the virtues attributed to Modi by his acolytes do not hold up to close scrutiny, but when you have the entire Indian media cheer-leading you, how can anyone else have a chance?
During the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi has not so subtly created a persona that counters Modi’s in several ways. The simple, white, half-sleeved T-shirt, even in severely cold conditions, shows up the prime minister’s sartorial excesses – designer clothes, branded accessories, et al. He walks continuously, hugging one and all, irrespective of their social status, thus establishing an intimate, empathetic connection with citizens – this is something Narendra Modi has never done – his hugs are reserved for world leaders and global businessmen. He speaks to the press freely, again in contrast with the prime minister who has not held a single press conference in almost nine years. Add to that his youth and energy, which connects with a young country.
But the looming question remains – has this rejuvenated the Congress enough to put its best foot forward and come together to fight elections? In Karnataka, rival politicians joined the Yatra – does it mean they will bury their differences at the time of elections this year? Chances are they will not and the Congress is not going to transform suddenly. Its problems are deep-rooted. On the other hand, seeing the enthusiasm of the crowds who walked with Gandhi, may just propel the party into fighting as a cohesive unit, and hold on to its MLAs. We will know soon enough.
What cannot be ignored is that Rahul Gandhi has offered an alternative idea at a time when polarisation is growing – that the country needs to be knit together again. It is “Jodo” as compared to “Todo”, a point he has harped upon repeatedly. This is the overriding and hope-filled theme offered by him and welcomed by the thousands of Indians who instinctively understood his message and his mission.