Bharat Jodo Yatra is crowd-puller, but political heft eludes Congress
Congress suffers from lack of clear blueprint for electoral revival and absence of formidable state-level leaders to cash in on the goodwill generated for Rahul and the party by the yatra
On January 2, a day before the Bharat Jodo Yatra was set to resume after its nine-day break, the Congress party released a new anthem to add further heft to the foot-march’s original tagline of “Miley Kadam, Judey Watan” (we march as a nation).
The catch-phrase in the foot-tapping anthem, ‘Ab Nahi Toh Kab’ (if not now, when), draws from the experience of the past four months of the yatra that began from Kanyakumari on September 7. More importantly, it also responds to critics of the mass mobilisation campaign who have repeatedly questioned the need for such a cross-country march led by former Congress president Rahul Gandhi. The visuals for the song are a montage of the massive public participation that the BJY witnessed from Tamil Nadu till Delhi during its first leg while the lyrics underscore the growing challenges of communal disharmony, rising prices and joblessness that face the country and the need to speak up against them.
It is difficult to argue with the message that this new anthem seeks to send across and the visible proof is the steadily swelling crowd at the yatra even in Delhi and UP — both states where the Congress has been struggling in vain to regroup and revive. Yet, the question of ‘Ab Nahi Toh Kab’ also, ironically, assumed a different connotation within the Congress party as Rahul resumed his long march from Delhi’s Kashmiri Gate onward towards Uttar Pradesh, from where the yatra will proceed via Haryana and Punjab to its final destination of Jammu and Kashmir.
What lies ahead?
“The yatra has been and continues to be a grand success and we are all proud of what Rahul has achieved through the BJY. It is an awakening of the masses. The yatra has given confidence to common people who had been forced into silence on issues of unemployment, price rise, intolerance of dissent and communal disharmony because of a fear of reprisal from the (Narendra) Modi government to finally speak up and be counted. However, the yatra gives no guide path for the Congress’s organisational revival,” a Congress veteran and former Lok Sabha MP from Delhi told The Federal.
The former MP said that visuals of the yatra moving through Delhi towards the Loni border at Ghaziabad may “fool some people in the Congress” into believing that the “lakhs of people who are marching behind Rahul” is indicative of voter loyalty shifting back from Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to the Congress.
There is no denying that the show of strength that the Congress party put up during the yatra’s Delhi-stretch on January 3 — and previously on December 24 — was truly remarkable. Having lost power to AAP’s Kejriwal in 2013 after ruling Delhi for 15 straight years and then failing to win a single seat in the assembly polls of 2015 and 2020, the Congress has been rapidly pushed to the margins of Delhi politics in just one decade. In the recently concluded municipal polls too, the party managed to win just nine of the corporation’s 250-odd seats.
Yet, the sea of people that walked behind Rahul in the yatra’s Delhi route and an even greater number of curious onlookers who cheered the padyatris along was reminiscent of the period between 1998 and 2013 when the late Sheila Dikshit firmly held Delhi as a Congress bastion. But crowds, as numerous elections across India have shown over the years, are often the most misleading yardstick of a political party or leader’s popularity.
Lack of local leaders
At Delhi’s Shastri Park, one of several areas that the BJY passed through on January 3, Ulhaas Sharma, a post-graduation student at the IP University, with over a dozen of his friends in tow, was excitedly waving at the BJY participants. He was all praise for Rahul’s “courage” to embark on a 3,570-kilometre cross-country foot-march and said the issues that the BJY was raising are “important and need to be highlighted”. No fan of the BJP, which Sharma described as a “bully”, when asked if he would vote for the Congress in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls or the next Delhi assembly election, he promptly replied in the negative. “I have nothing against the Congress but the party has no presence in Delhi. Why should I waste my vote? I don’t even know who they fielded from Shastri Park in the 2020 Assembly polls or who their leaders are in Delhi,” Sharma told The Federal.
Interestingly, a similar exchange repeated itself, albeit with an important twist, in Jaffrabad, a Muslim-dominated locality that was among the handful of areas in Delhi that voted overwhelmingly for the Congress in the recent municipal polls. Mohd Saud, a mobile shop owner, who was watching the yatra pass by, told The Federal there is no “jaan” (life) left in the Congress but he will vote for the party “not because of its leadership or because they are doing anything for us but because the AAP has proved to be the same as the BJP when it comes to Hindus and Muslims.”
With the AAP still holding on to the erstwhile Congress territories in Delhi – with the exception of some Muslim-dominated localities in south and north-east Delhi where Kejriwal’s repeated avowal of his Hindu credentials and the AAP’s refusal to engage with the community has triggered a switch of voter loyalty back to the Congress – the Grand Old Party has done precious little in recent years to revive itself organisationally.
“We have an utterly incompetent state Congress president in Anil Chaudhary who neither has command over the organisation nor a base among the people. The running joke among many of our party colleagues is that he should be called Nil Chaudhary because under him, the Congress will remain zero in Delhi. Other senior Delhi Congress leaders like Ajay Maken, Sandeep Dikshit, JP Agarwal, etc., too aren’t bothered about rebuilding the party,” a former three-term Congress MLA told The Federal.
He added, “we have been at zero seats in the Delhi Assembly since 2015 and now have our lowest ever tally in the MCD too… The yatra is good, it has shown that people want to listen to Rahul’s message, but on the ground we have no body working hard to take that message to every household… Rahul and other party leaders have no remedy for this… if even after such a massive yatra we can’t revive our party, when will we do it.”
The UP conundrum
This question of when will the party’s local leadership actually begin work on the grassroots to reconnect with the masses finds an even greater resonance in Uttar Pradesh, where all efforts by the Congress to revive itself over the past three decades have failed to take off; except for the 2009 Lok Sabha polls when the party had won 22 of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats. The BJY will spend just three days in UP even though it’s a state that, within the Congress’s organisational structure, falls under Priyanka Gandhi’s charge and one that has its lone Congress MP in former party president Sonia Gandhi. Rahul was the Lok Sabha MP from UP’s Amethi from 2004 to 2019, when he lost the family seat to the BJP’s Smriti Irani.
Since 2019, the responsibility of reviving the Congress in UP has been with Priyanka but her efforts have, so far, yielded no visible positive results. In fact, some in the party’s state unit argue that Priyanka’s handling of UP Congress’s revival plan has been “counter-productive” and point to the results of last year’s assembly polls in the state in which the party was reduced to just two seats in the 403-member state assembly despite the younger Gandhi sibling leading a blistering campaign herself.
“It is difficult to understand what Priyanka really plans to do with the Congress in UP. Last year she ran the most aggressive assembly poll campaign that the Congress had seen in UP since the 1990s, but what was the end result – just two seats. Leaders and workers who stood by the party for the past three decades despite the Congress being in wilderness, find no place in Priyanka’s plan to revive the party; she has outsourced the whole organisation to people who, until recently, were either with the BSP, SP or even the BJP,” says a former UP Congress chief who is still part of the party but has stayed away from the yatra, so far.
The former UP Congress chief told The Federal, “Our state Congress chief (Brijlal Khabri) is from the BSP and he had joined us only in 2016; of the six regional presidents that were appointed last October based on Priyanka’s recommendation, three (Naseemuddin Siddiqui, Virendra Chaudhary and Nakul Dubey) are former BSP leaders, one (Anil Yadav) was imported from the SP just a year ago while Ajay Rai has been with both SP and BJP. So, you have only one regional president (Yogesh Dixit) who is a Congress loyalist.” He added, “we have no presence on the ground in over 80 per cent of the state and our candidates repeatedly lose their deposits. The route of the yatra is also perplexing – it is going through areas like Baghpat and Shamli where the BJP has been losing ground to the SP-RLD coalition, with which we should ideally be building bridges… traditional Congress seats and existing BJP strongholds have been given a complete miss. If the intent of the yatra was mass mobilisation and public outreach, at least in UP, it has been a non-starter.”
Rahul Gandhi’s invitation to SP chief Akhilesh Yadav his RLD counterpart, Jayant Chaudhary, to join the yatra was seen in some sections of the party to revive a grand alliance between the Congress, RLD and the SP. Mayawati too was invited but Congress insiders say this was “merely an act of courtesy by Rahul as she is a key opposition leader, at least in name”. None of them honoured the invitation, embarrassing the Congress for several days until Yadav and Chaudhary took to social media to extend their good wishes to Rahul for the yatra.
SP, RLD’s reticence
Sources say Yadav and Chaudhary’s reticence in joining the yatra was largely because neither wanted to “confuse the cadre of their respective parties” on the question of rekindling an alliance with the Congress for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Rahul too alluded to this during his interaction with the media when he said he “understood the compulsions” of the SP but asserted that he has respect for Yadav and other leaders of opposition parties, including Mayawati.
Congress insiders say the party is still open to the idea of an alliance with the SP and the RLD but leaders of the two parties aren’t “very excited” about it because they view the Grand Old Party as a “liability…. to which allocating even a single seat as part of a seat-sharing pact would be akin to giving the BJP a walkover in that constituency”. Evidently, Yadav and Chaudhary do not see the Congress bringing anything positive to the table when discussing a potentially joint political future in the state – at least not yet – and many in the Congress concede that the two regional satraps aren’t wrong in their assessment.
This then unwittingly brings the Congress back to the same question that it was hoping would turn the tables on the BJP, though in a different context. A year away from the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and with neither a clear blueprint for electoral revival nor a formidable panoply of state-level leaders to cash in on the goodwill generated for Rahul and the party by the BJY, the Congress may well want to ask itself, Ab Nahi Toh Kab – if not now, when.