New Delhi: Rahul Gandhi has walked over 3,500 kilometres in the first leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra that began in Kanyakumari nearly four months ago. This is no mean feat as the former Congress president has been walking almost 30 kilometers a day without any significant break. He still plans to walk another 500 as the new year kicks in, this time from India’s most-populous state, Uttar Pradesh.
Sceptics had been doubtful about the Yatra’s electoral impact since the very beginning of the unprecedented mass outreach programme. Yet, Gandhi remains undaunted, even as the Congress has only chosen to speak about its long-term political impact. He has not only been able to energise party leaders and cadres, but has also emerged as a resilient, supremely fit, and determined leader himself.
As much as it may seem as a huge makeover from how he came across in the run-up to the 2019 Parliamentary elections, Gandhi remains the same – a friendly personality with a deep spiritual side, willing to give it all to give India the much-needed push at the world stage, and seemingly incorruptible. The Yatra only gave him the platform to showcase his hidden personality traits that were earlier confined to his one-on-one discussions in drawing rooms.
Gandhi has truly emerged as a liberal dream during the course of the Yatra. And that has come to the fore in the wide support that he has received over the last few months. His efforts – like writing personal letters of invitation, holding hands of fellow walkers, or even waking up every day at 4 am to spearhead the Yatra – have drawn civil society organisations, actors and actresses, social and political activists, professionals, and regional leaders towards the Yatra.
For the grand-old party that doesn’t miss a day of being written off by the media, the Yatra has come as an elixir. It is the first ever large-scale mass outreach by the party in the last eight years when the all-powerful Narendra Modi government has been at the Centre. Observers believe that both the Congress that has barely remained outside of the Treasury benches for so long and Gandhi himself are finally getting comfortable in an opposition jacket.
More importantly, the Yatra has also been a boon for the party’s organisational problems. The party has surely come across as a united camp, be it in Rajasthan where chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his rival Sachin Pilot have been at the loggerheads, or even D.K. Shivakumar and former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah who appeared to bury their differences to walk together with Gandhi in the Yatra.
The newly elected party president Mallikarjun Kharge has also been working in tandem with Gandhi, as at least to the public eye there seems to be no point of difference between the two until now. This has buried the speculation that Kharge may have to act as yet another puppet president. However, the Kharge-Gandhi duo has not only shown great synergy but also managed to streamline the entire top leadership towards a common goal.
Bharat Jodo Yatra may not alter the political landscape drastically but has strengthened the democratic process in all terms. With its three-pronged criticism of the Modi government, the issues of social polarisation, inflation, and unemployment have captured popular imagination once again after the 2019 General Election. It has foregrounded the Congress as the centre of opposition politics yet again, with so many regional parties and political players showing support for it – and has given the liberals and other anti-BJP forces the much-needed push to take on the dominant BJP with vigour in the 2024 parliamentary elections.
The Yatra has given strength to those who were down and out with multiple losses at the hands of the BJP. It has expanded as a social movement more than a political exercise. The unity around Yatra’s message appears to be much more organic and ideological than previous experiments with opposition unity which was perceived more as cosmetic and opportunistic pre-electoral alliances than anything else.
Gandhi and his efforts are being praised only with the hope that the Yatra may be just the beginning of a larger political movement against BJP’s hegemony and its majoritarian agenda. It remains to be seen whether the Congress can rise up to the challenge of keeping the momentum up as India gears up for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
One can’t but agree with the notion that all the gains of the Yatra will become nothing if the Congress doesn’t translate them into electoral victories in the poll-bound states. The immediate task in front of it is to retain Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and upstage the saffron party in Karnataka. Despite all its gains, it is clear that the Yatra may have united the opposition’s core votes but hasn’t been able to put a dent on BJP’s solid vote share of nearly 40%. For any party to defeat the BJP, it will have to swing a large chunk of that vote share in its favour.
With the Yatra, the Congress has begun well. But it still lacks a popular political narrative to penetrate the psyche of those swing voters, especially the middle classes. That will not be an easy task as it will require the Congress to offer a cohesive ideological vision for the future, not merely pre-electoral manoeuvering or tactical posturing.