Rahul Gandhi, Bharat Jodo Yatra, Haath Se Haath Jodo Abhiyan
After a long time, the Congress is being perceived by people as a credible pro-people force, the credit for which should certainly be given to Rahul Gandhi | File photo

Will Bharat Jodo Yatra pivot Congress back to electoral glory in 2024?

The walkathon has mitigated, if not entirely eviscerated, the image of an insincere, uninterested and reticent politician that Rahul had been trapped in for a better part of his political journey

With a speech that was, at once, acutely political, poignant and personal, Rahul Gandhi wrapped up his Bharat Jodo Yatra at Srinagar’s Sher-e-Kashmir Stadium, on January 30, before a packed crowd that braved heavy snowfall to listen to his message of love and harmony, Kashmiriyat and Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (syncretism).

Messiah of peace for Kashmiris

Given that strife-torn Kashmir hadn’t witnessed such a gathering for a political leader in a long time, certainly none since the reading down of Article 370 in August 2019, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the former Congress president appeared to have acquired, at least for the ordinary Kashmiri, the aura of a messiah of peace.

A day earlier, he had completed his 4,080 kilometre cross-country foot march, which had begun from Kanyakumari on September 7. Now, he was drawing on that enriching experience to speak passionately for a “vision of India” that had love, brotherhood and religious tolerance at its core.

Watch: Will Bharat Jodo Yatra drive Congress to take on BJP?

Invokes painful memories

Rahul invoked the painful memory of receiving two phone calls seven years apart but with the same message: the first, when as a school-going child of 14 years he was informed of the gunning down of his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and the second, when as a college student in America he received a call regarding death of his father.

When Rahul said he wanted to see an India where no child or adult received such a phone call, the message struck an instant chord with his audience – not just the ordinary people of Kashmir but also the security personnel present at the venue.

More importantly, Rahul asserted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, those in the BJP and RSS, and even National Security Advisor Ajit Doval wouldn’t understand what he meant, for they hadn’t suffered such loss.

Yatra culminates with image makeover

The image of Rahul, surrounded by party colleagues as well as leaders from other Opposition parties such as Omar Abdullah of the National Conference, PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti, DMK’s Tiruchi Siva and CPI’s D Raja, addressing the crowd from an open stage under heavy snowfall, was reminiscent of a drenched Rahul speaking at a public meeting earlier on during the yatra, in Karnataka’s Mysore, braving a sudden downpour.

The remarkable coincidence of the two events surely wouldn’t have immediately struck those present, including Rahul, but it dawned on some in due course: if Monday’s event coincided with the 75th death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the rally in Mysore had happened on October 2, the birth anniversary of the Mahatma. Divine Providence for a man who repeatedly equated the yatra with tapasya (penance)?

Rahul couldn’t have asked for a better end to his daunting padyatra. The 135-daylong tapasya has mitigated, if not entirely eviscerated, the image of an insincere, uninterested and reticent politician that he had been trapped in for a better part of his 18-year political journey. Rahul has said that the yatra has allowed the people to see him just as it has allowed him to understand them better – a discovery of himself through his discovery of India, as it were.

Also read: Rahul wraps up Bharat Jodo Yatra; recalls phone call about Indira, Rajiv’s assassinations

Unanswered questions galore

But now that the walkathon is over, a litany of questions such as what awaits Rahul next, what has been his party’s net political gain from this arduous march and if the Bharat Jodo Yatra will pivot the Congress back to its electoral glory come 2024 Lok Sabha polls, are all par for the course. The answers, however, aren’t as easy to offer or even presume.

It was prescient of Rahul and the Congress’ savvy but brusque communications chief Jairam Ramesh to maintain from the very start of the BJY that the unprecedented mass mobilisation movement was “above electoral politics” and not a campaign for their crisis-ridden party’s electoral revival.

The two, perhaps, understood that while the yatra may result in a metamorphosis of the unflattering public image that Rahul had among a chunk of the Indian electorate and even rid the Congress of its characteristic lassitude, it may not necessarily provide their party immediate electoral resuscitation.

Will Congress capitalise on goodwill?

With nine assembly polls due over the next 11 months and the crucial Lok Sabha polls scheduled for early next year, the immediate challenge before the Congress, thus, is to capitalise on the goodwill that the BJY has visibly generated for Rahul and, more importantly, convert it into a tangible groundswell for the party. On this count, Congress insiders say, the party’s own assessment from some of the states that the yatra covered has been mixed.

For instance, despite the massive support Rahul drew in Kerala, Maharashtra, Telangana and Rajasthan, continuing feuds amongst its leaders in these states coupled with the Congress’ typical tendency to sink into long spells of inertia has nearly reversed the gains made during the yatra.

In Madhya Pradesh, which goes to polls at the end of this year along with Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the recent reconstitution of the state party unit has caused much heartburn among the local leaders casting a long shadow over Rahul’s recent prediction of a Congress sweep in the assembly polls. In contrast, the Congress seems to be building on the gains yielded by the yatra in Karnataka, a state where elections are due in April-May, and Haryana.

Also read: Bharat Jodo Yatra went from south to north but had countrywide effect, gave alternative vision to country: Rahul

Political campaign to take off soon

The intensive and “purely political” two-month long Haath Se Haath Jodo Abhiyan that the Congress launched on January 26 to reach every village and gram panchayat across the country with its electoral narrative against the ruling BJP-led NDA government hasn’t yet taken off in full steam.

Congress leaders say the Abhiyan, during which party president Mallikarjun Kharge, Rahul and Priyanka will visit every state at least once, address rallies and participate in day-long padyatras, will pick up momentum shortly now that the BJY has concluded.

To be fair to Rahul and the yatra’s organisers, the BJY was not envisaged to correct the organisational deficiencies of the Congress – and there are many, including the fact that the party today simply doesn’t exist at the grassroots in large parts of the country.

Be that as it may, many in the party as well as its sympathisers hope that ridding the Congress of its internal morass is the logical corollary to the yatra, if Rahul’s intension is to pit his party as a viable electoral alternative to Modi’s BJP. This is not an unreasonable expectation.

Udaipur Declaration awaits implementation

A blueprint for correcting some of the substantive organisational deficiencies – how to replace aging, non-performing leaders with younger and more dynamic faces, how to regain confidence of the electorally formidable SC, ST and OBC communities, how to spruce up the party’s nearly non-existent election planning apparatus – was firmed up last May at the Congress’s Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir in Udaipur.

The Udaipur Declaration has largely remained a dead letter despite Kharge, who took over as Congress president last October through a keenly contested internal election, asserting that he would implement its proposals without delay.

Also read: Bharat Jodo Yatra: Rahul dares Amit Shah to walk from Jammu to Kashmir

Raipur meet may spell out role of Gandhi troika

Congress leaders expect some clarity on these issues to emerge out of the deliberations that will take place at the party’s Plenary Session in Raipur from February 24 to 26. The Plenary Session is also likely to give some indication of the role that the troika of former party chief Sonia Gandhi, Rahul and Priyanka will play within the Congress as it prepares for the battles that lie in the immediate future.

Sources say Sonia may continue as the chief of the party’s parliamentary party or give up the position she has held for over two decades for Rahul but that she will continue to play a troubleshooting role for the party, particularly while dealing with some chiefs of the Congress’s current and potential allies.

Rahul is likely to double up as not just the party’s face – de facto or de jure – for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls but also as its ideological anchor while Priyanka could be roped in as part, if not head, of a department for drawing election strategies that the Udaipur Declaration had strongly batted for.

Need for ideological clarity to take on BJP

Rahul, through the course of the yatra, had placed a premium on the need for ideological clarity to take on the BJP juggernaut and asserted that for any Opposition alliance to work against the BJP a pre-requisite would be to present the electorate with an alternative and clearly defined vision. He believes that the BJY has succeeded on this count.

Also read: Bharat Jodo Yatra wrap-up: Can Rahul’s crisscross walk reap political dividends?

Whether all his party colleagues, other constituents of a fragmented Opposition, many of whom remain distrustful of the Congress and its ability to take on Modi, and the Indian electorate agree with Rahul’s view is, however, still very premature to say. But then, as the yatra concluded, Rahul himself told the media, his party colleagues and the 120 odd Bharat Yatris who walked with him daily for the past five months that the walkathon’s culmination in Srinagar was “not the end but a beginning”. There’s a lot more ground that Rahul and the Congress need to cover before they can take on the BJP electorally.

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