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There is something about Rahul Gandhi’s carefree physical proximity with the crowds in Tamil Nadu that sends visceral pain through my body, bringing to the fore every shred of protective maternal instinct that can be summoned. Memories of his father’s assassination three decades ago are etched in blood and guilt; and, to watch him smile, wave and walk in the open with childlike trust is enormously disarming. It is no exaggeration to say that he is putting his life on the line.
I join the 3500 km long Kanyakumari to Kashmir padayatra – march – on the first day. It is easy to be momentarily carried away by the chaotic energy that marks the beginning, but the occasion merits sombre reflection. Firstly: Congress is at its weakest; the party has become cannibalistic, racing towards self-annihilation. Secondly, we are at a historical juncture where this pulverised Congress has the onus of leading and uniting the rest of the opposition in India because any third-front logic will only benefit the ruling BJP.
Now it looks like if there is no united opposition, Modi might well be elected for a third term in 2024. Every ill dividing India will be further amplified: religious hatred, caste violence, patriarchal culture, deprivation and unemployment, the exploitation of the working class and the clampdown on the freedom of expression. The social and the political are intertwined; things cannot be changed on the ground unless the leadership is changed, and the leadership itself cannot be changed unless there is a change of attitude on the ground. The Bharat Jodo Yatra appears to address both these concerns.
The Congress is facing its worst-ever existential crisis. Plagued by desertions, defections, resignations, factional rebellions (G-23) and second-rung leaders mouthing BJP lines, the old adage is proved true: When the ship sinks, the rats jump. In these last seven years, a sizeable chunk of Congress politicians, elected to represent people have shown that they are bereft of any ideology by switching sides and bringing down their own democratically elected governments at the behest of the BJP. The heterogeneity that I briefly witness within the Congress is baffling. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.
I am horrified by a senior Congress leader who walks in like a feudal landlord at the dining area and barks at young volunteers to make them vacate a table for his chit-chat with a fellow politician. I am amused by a soft-spoken woman Congress leader who inhabits another century altogether, using the break hours of the rally to sit by herself and spin cotton on the charka. I restrain the urge to remind her, “Ma’am, the fascists have taken over this country, perhaps we can skip the few chapters on spinning and move ahead?” These may be dire snapshots of two leaders (one divorced from the grassroots and the other divorced from reality) – but a shocking preview into the bewildering, impossible task that awaits Rahul Gandhi – uniting and strengthening a party on the verge of self-destruction.
Engineering the implosion of the Congress has been the bedrock of the Sangh agenda. Two weeks ago, going into the crux of the issue of whether a rightwing populist party can be called fascist, Tom Nichols wrote in The Atlantic:
“A fascist takeover relies on a disciplined and organized mass party led by dedicated people who, once they gain the levers of government, will zero in on destroying the mechanisms—laws, courts, competing parties—that could dislodge them from power.”
The RSS, and its political wing, the BJP check every single one of these boxes. Destroying the Congress, the only party which could provide a formidable nationwide opposition to the BJP, was an explicit agenda when Modi declared in 2014 that the aim was a “Congress-mukt Bharat.”
In Rahul Gandhi, the Congress and the larger opposition has a leader who calls a spade a spade. He is not afraid of using the F-word; he has publicly called the RSS a “fascist male-chauvinist organisation.”
This march has been tied to Rahul’s future and the future of the Congress party but in many ways, it will also affect the future of this country. Even as it would be a miracle for the Congress to forge unity within its ranks, and then go on to lead the disparate, opportunist and half-hearted opposition in the nation to pull off a victory in 2024, it must also be borne in mind that the RSS-BJP are not an organisation that is going to be defeated through the ballot box alone. The cultural and institutional legacy of Hindutva fascism has managed to penetrate and embed itself.
President Joe Biden in the US and Luis Lula da Silva who faces imminent elections in Brazil are examples of how electoral victory might not mean the end of fascistic tendencies. The Democratic Party has not defeated Trumpism, and even as Lula is slated to win, he will not have defeated Bolsonaro-ism. It would take much to put an end to right-wing populism. Mere respect for the sacrosanct, inviolable nature of the electoral exercise and democracy is not enough to put the far right in its place.
In 2024, even if the BJP-RSS are defeated, they may not shy away from using extra-parliamentary means to capture power and trample upon democracy at will. They have militias and mass organisations at their disposal and ready for deployment. Rahul Gandhi at the beginning of this march correctly denounced the BJP-RSS for taking over the institutions of the state and the structure of the state. To face up to this onerous task, it will need more than an abstract call for unity; the Congress will be required to build a movement that can unite people on clear goals.
Will the Congress provide real avenues for the people who are struggling to build a better future for themselves? It is still very early days for the campaign, but the presence of a committed activist like Yogendra Yadav on the ground allows one to be reassured that there will be a certain momentum and commitment. Will the march be able to signal that the Congress is willing to align itself and build people’s movements?
I was incredibly lucky to be allowed to sit and observe three closed-door consultations which representatives of people’s movements (Dalits and anti-caste activists, working women’s groups, and environmentalists) held with Rahul Gandhi. The range of issues raised is thorough and breathtaking, and we are only on day one of the rally. What emerges from these discussions is that people, by investing their faith in the Congress are also pressuring it to make policy decisions on how it handles crucial questions: inflation, unemployment, climate crisis, nuclear power, protecting the environment, caste census, reservation in the private sector, education policy, the participation of women in the public sphere, labour codes.
The Congress can no longer carry on with ad hoc decision-making or operate like a franchise with a different policy in a different state. For the party to reinvent and rejuvenate itself, there must be an end to the double-speak where Congress as the ruling party in the states does not reflect Congress as the opposition party.
Even as Rahul Gandhi is walking across the country, news has come in that the Bhupesh Bhagel-led Congress government in Chhattisgarh has banned the CPI padayatra from Silger to Sukma. The young, Adivasi people’s democratic right to assert their unified opposition to militarisation and corporatisation is as inviolable as Rahul Gandhi’s right to spread his message of national unity. The exceptional enthusiasm and the love pouring out for the Bharat Jodo Yatra on the streets of Tamil Nadu and Kerala will build up real momentum and substantiate the message of change, but the true test for Rahul Gandhi awaits him when he enters hostile terrain as he marches northwards.
During one of these closed-door interactions, Rahul Gandhi responds to someone, “Why does everybody in this country believe that the solution to everything has to come from the past?”
If the task is to imagine a new future for India, is Rahul Gandhi willing to go the extra mile?
It is indeed positive that this rally brings into the public discourse issues which the BJP does not want the people to talk about. Unemployment among the youth stands at 42%, inflation is at an all-time high, education is becoming out of bounds, there is a complete collapse of labour protection, the corporatisation of agriculture is leading to penurisation or destitution of the farmer, there is stagnation of social development.
However, this will not be an exercise in intellectual honesty if the Congress does not scrutinise its own political record on these same issues when it had the mandate and the power to transform them. Is the Congress willing to own up to its troubled legacy and work towards breaking free from it? Instead, any complacence on the part of the Congress, which is already pushed into a corner, will ensure that a march of this scale will end up being a mere facade, an image-building exercise.
Meena Kandasamy is a poet, fiction writer, translator and activist.