Quō vādis (Where are you marching?) would be an apt question about Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra when it leaves Delhi for Srinagar on January 3. The yatra has surprised skeptics by drawing huge crowds throughout its route since its launch on September 7, 2022, from Kanyakumari. This 150 day-journey, traversing 3,570 kilometres with lakhs of people joining, would indeed be remarkable. Yet, its agenda and outcome still remain hazy.
Howsoever this idea of the Yatra originated, Rahul Gandhi’s gruelling political journey under adverse conditions has to factor in multiple crises the Congress is beset with. Organisationally weak, it has an acute leadership crisis at each level. It steadfastly keeps holding on to the proverbial coattails of the Nehru-Gandhis for its survival. The strategy ceased to work from 1989 onwards, leading to its current electoral and representational abyss.
The BJP’s stupendous effort to disparage Rahul Gandhi as a pappu (a novice and a dullard) and Rahul Baba (an upper-class kid) worked because he has not been at the vanguard of the party since 2004. The Yatra sustaining for such time and distance, however, does raise hope for the party and alternation in the electoral process.
India’s political yatras
Yatra, a poignant Sanskrit word (for a journey, caravan, pilgrimage or departure for a war or a religious drama), needs a defined objective to be successful as a political venture. More particularly when awakening, arousing and mobilising people are the underlying intents; else it would be reduced to a traipse.
Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi Salt March in 1930 was a successful 385-kilometre journey. Beginning with 75 people, about 50,000 Satyagrahis reached the destination, shaking the Raj. Another famous one in world history is Mao’s Long March, traversing 10,000 kilometres, which accomplished the Communist revolution in China.
There have been several political yatras undertaken in India since independence: Chandra Shekhar’s Bharat Yatra from Kanyakumari to New Delhi against Indira Gandhi in 1983, Murli Manohar Joshi’s Ekta Yatra to Srinagar in 1991, Lal Krishna Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya in 1990 and his second political yatra in 1997. But only Advani’s Ayodhya odyssey is remembered for laying the foundation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s rise and communal polarisation in the country.
However, in the Gandhian mode, Rahul Gandhi’s padayatra is only the second since Independence after that of Chandra Shekhar. All yatras led by BJP leaders were in vehicles improvised as a rath (chariot) to imbue religio-political meaning to it. Whether Rahul Gandhi would be able to employ political skills and gain the stature and aura of the Mahatma will remain an unanswered question.
Why did Rahul Gandhi suddenly decide to begin this arduous political pilgrimage for the country, his party and himself with the ‘Bharat Jodo’ (Unite India) theme?
‘Bharat Jodo’ conveys an expansive political message of an India being splintered under the Narendra Modi regime into Hindu and Muslim, which must immediately be bound back together under a more broad-based, inclusive, socio-cultural idea of India. Even as the yatra was on, assembly elections were held in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. The yatra did not touch either of the states, but Rahul Gandhi campaigned in a few constituencies in Gujarat. The BJP won dominantly in Gujarat, while the Congress sealed a victory in Himachal Pradesh.
Rahul Gandhi has underlined that raising popular consciousness of ‘unity’, rather than electoral success, is the chief aim of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Communal politics, rising inflation and unemployment are among the other issues raised. With an emphasis on the country’s diversity, questions relating to the rights of tribes, Dalits, minorities and women, and a threat to India’s constitution, have rightly figured in the emerging discourse.
Yet, the ultimate question that remains unanswered is whether the yatra would help Congress to recover its lost political ground and its past glory. Without that, all the changes and transformations sought by Rahul Gandhi would be dissipated. The yatras of the Gandhian era for India’s Independence were aimed at developing a heightened political consciousness. But to its contemporary objective, the Congress party would have to prepare for the electoral contest to wrest power.
Lights and shades
People from different sections of society, not only celebrities but also commoners, voluntarily joining the yatra is its brightest aspect. Since the multitude following Rahul Gandhi has been changing from state to state, it is difficult to estimate the numbers as well as the nature of the persons following him. Thus, the impact of the yatra in conveying the message purported by the leader still remains hazy.
Even before the underlying message of the yatra gets conveyed to the people in this diverse country, it must get across to the party and its workers to the last, who alone would carry forward the message of the leadership down to the villages and mohallas. Even though the party has been able to sort out the issue of the presidency by electing Mallikarjun Kharge – the first from outside the family since Sitaram Kesri in 1996-1998 – party building under his leadership has not begun yet.
If organisational structure is missing, the leadership question at different levels remains unanswered. With Rahul Gandhi successfully leading the yatra, the leadership at the top has acquired prominence. It adds an aura to him, blunting the BJP’s unsavoury campaign. However, the party would have done well to display its leaders at different levels visible.
Further, has this given Rahul Gandhi the image and capability to challenge Modi as the leader of the nation? This question remains answered. The unquestioning recognition of Narendra Modi as the leader amongst the educated middle classes made people across the states beat thalis and clap to escape the fury of COVID-19. How many of them would swing to Rahul Gandhi whose oratory does not have the same capacity?
On October 28, 1885, the Indian National Congress was founded in Bombay (Mumbai) without any ideology. As it began to acquire the shape of a political party from being a platform, it acquired a centrist ideology of inclusive nationalism, which leaned left in the development strategy and discourse of the country once in power.
Its dissipation since the emergency in 1975 eventually created hollowness after 1989, the rest is history. The critical question is if Rahul Gandhi marching day after day till February 2023, when he reaches Srinagar, would help the party to reinvent its ideology. After all, between the Congress evolving its ideology and Rahul Gandhi roving through India to arouse popular consciousness, a little over a century has passed.
A majority of the nation’s Hindu population has unquestioningly accepted Hindutva-coated nationalism. ‘Pseudo secularism’, which Advani coined by accident, is junked for ‘sickularism’ now, with violent consequences. The reduction of liberals as ‘libtard’ has road-rolled moderate thinking in just eight years. The Yatra has not spoken about these issues. While Rahul’s journey has seen him going to temples, other religious places, particularly mosques and churches have been avoided. He would begin the second phase of the Yatra from Delhi from a Hanuman temple!
The programmatic clarity of the party has also been a victim of the loss of ideology. While the BJP successfully absorbed the Manmohan Singh government’s programmes such as MGNREGA and created a voter category called ‘labharthi’, a fresh vision is absent in the Congress manifesto. Since the Congress too has had a role in the institutional decline, total destruction of the country’s institutional system by the BJP could not be highlighted through the Yatra along with a fresh constructive vision for the 21st century.
In order to achieve his goal of ‘Bharat Jodo’, Rahul Gandhi must first bring his party to the pole position in Indian politics. That is dependent on achieving representation in elective bodies. The Congress has lost its winning social coalition since 1989. Muslims no longer look towards Congress, for it is accused of pursuing soft Hindutva, and it is unable to listen to their grievances. The Dalits migrated to caste-based parties, as did the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
The upper caste support, which was never overwhelmingly with the party, also shifted to the BJP. Since Congress is not quite ‘coalation-able’ for state and smaller parties, for it to forge a political coalition too is unlikely. The past two general elections have seen major shifts in the representational pattern in the country. Beyond the lofty slogan of splicing the country, the yatra must factor in these micro trends to take on the fourth-party system.
Finally, the Bharat Jodo campaign needs to have a vision of a new ‘imagined community’, à la Benedict Anderson, a new ideal of India. The Nehruvian idea of India was eroded by his daughter Indira Gandhi, and an alternative began taking shape through the 1990s. It finally came to fruition in 2014 when Narendra Modi, emerging as the ‘leader of the nation’, situated aggressive majoritarian Hindutva as the new idea that the people of the country accepted. Can Rahul Gandhi with his well-intentioned yatra replace Modi’s idea of India by building a new more inclusive ‘imagined community’? This question still begs an answer.
Ajay K. Mehra is a political scientist. He was Atal Bihari Vajpayee Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, 2019-21, and Principal, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Evening College, Delhi University (2018).