The Congress Bharat Jodo Yatra may have wrapped up at Srinagar but it has left behind a trail of people’s issues, enthused party cadres, controversies and a fervent hope that the grand old party can mount a challenge in the general elections next year.
Congress watchers feel the yatra has found some answers the party had been looking for on the road to 2024 but key questions remain whether it will translate into electoral dividends going forward.
The yatra culminated at the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) headquarters in the Lal Chowk area in Srinagar, with the unfurling of the national flag after traversing 12 states and two Union territories in over 140 days after its launch on September 7 last year, clocking over 4,000 km.
During the course of the yatra, Rahul Gandhi addressed 12 public meetings, over 100 corner meetings and 13 press conferences. He had over 275 planned walking interactions and more than 100 sitting interactions.
Whether it will have a lasting impact on the electoral fortunes of the Congress only time will tell. But, it is certain to have a place in history as one of the longest yatras undertaken by a political leader on foot, post-independence. Probably, Chandra Shekhar’s Bharat Yatra in 1983, from Kanyakumari to Delhi would be the closest to it.
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The big takeway – Gandhi’s image transformation
Many experts say a big takeaway from the yatra for the Congress has been Gandhi’s image transformation, from a reluctant and part-time politician to one who is mature and taken seriously by opponents.
Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh, considered the brain behind the yatra along with party colleague Digvijaya Singh, believes that the transformation of Gandhi’s image was not the cause of the yatra but a consequence of it.
Asserting that the Congress made huge gains from the yatra, Ramesh said the party succeeded in conveying the messages of the march such as the threats to the republic from economic inequalities, social polarisation and political dictatorship.
Celebrities walked the talk
With over 4,000 km under his belt, Gandhi managed to catch the attention of his supporters, as well as detractors and the march saw participation from a cross-section of society, including film and TV celebrities such as Kamal Haasan, Pooja Bhatt, Riya Sen, Sushant Singh, Swara Bhasker, Rashami Desai, Akanksha Puri and Amol Palekar.
Besides participation from tinsel town celebrities, writers, military veterans including former army chief Gen (retd) Deepak Kapoor, ex-navy chief Admiral L Ramdas, and noted persons such as former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan and ex-finance secretary Arvind Mayaram, also participated in the yatra.
Opposition leaders such as National Conference’s Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdulla, PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti, Shiv Sena’s Aaditya Thackeray, Priyanka Chaturvedi and Sanjay Raut and NCP’s Supriya Sule, also walked alongside Gandhi at various points in time during the march.
While Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge joined the yatra on many occasions, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi participated in the yatra twice in Karnataka’s Mandya and in Delhi.
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Though there were several landmark occasions, one historic moment was Rahul Gandhi unfurling the national flag in front of the iconic Charminar here, over 32 years after his father and then party chief Rajiv Gandhi had started the Sadbhavna Yatra from the same spot.
The Kanyakumari to Kashmir foot march also courted many controversies in the last nearly five months and led to several fiery exchanges between the Congress and the BJP including on Rahul Gandhi’s ever-growing salt-and-pepper beard and his Burberry T-shirt.
As the Gandhi-led yatra continued so did the sparring on social media platforms, TV debates and on the streets.
There were also times when dissensions within the party and its allies came to the fore. The Maharashtra leg saw fissures surface between the Congress and its ideologically incompatible ally Shiv Sena after Gandhi attacked Savarkar over his mercy petitions to the British.
When the yatra was in Madhya Pradesh, a crisis erupted in the party in Rajasthan, the yatra’s next destination, as Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot slammed his former deputy Sachin Pilot and called him a gaddar in an interview.
The matter was resolved just in the nick of time and a show of unity was put up by Gehlot and Pilot with party general secretary, organisation, K C Venugopal brokering an uneasy truce just ahead of the yatra entering the desert state.
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Why Gandhi only wore a T-shirt
Gandhi’s white T-shirt, no-sweater look in north India’s famed winter was also the subject of much attention. He said he decided to wear only T-shirts during the march after meeting three poor girls “shivering in torn clothes” in Madhya Pradesh.
There have also been casualties during the yatra. Congress Jalandhar MP Santokh Singh Chaudhary died following a cardiac arrest during the Punjab leg. A Congress Seva Dal functionary died after collapsing in Nanded in Maharashtra.
Besides, a 62-year-old man from Tamil Nadu died and another person from that state was injured after being hit by a truck in Nanded when they were participating in the Congress foot march.
The final leg of the yatra
The yatra took a nine-day break around Christmas-New Year and resumed the cross-country march from January 3 from New Delhi. The yatra then moved on to Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh and continued to attract large crowds with serpentine trail of people on roads being a staple during the walkathon.
After a few hours in Himachal Pradesh, the yatra entered Jammu to a rousing reception but a major row played out there with senior leader Digvijaya Singh questioning the government’s claims on surgical strikes and accused it of peddling lies.
This drew a furious reaction from the BJP, which said the Opposition had “insulted” the armed forces. The Congress and Rahul Gandhi distanced themselves from Singh’s remarks with the former party chief even calling them ridiculous.
As Gandhi entered the Kashmir Valley on Friday (January 27) he had to cancel his walk, with the party alleging a security lapse. The Jammu and Kashmir Police, however, rejected the Congress charge.
Gandhi on Sunday unfurled the national flag at the historic clock tower of Lal Chowk after the Bharat Jodo Yatra entered Srinagar, amid stringent security measures. The yatra came to a close with this morning’s hoisting of the flag at the PCC office.
Former Congress leader Sanjay Jha, who has also been the party’s spokesperson, said the Bharat Jodo Yatra has exponentially increased the perception that the Congress, long accused of inexplicable inertia, is now ready to take the BJP head-on.
This is significant. The BJP has successfully created the political narrative that there is no alternative to Modi, despite their underwhelming performance. This can now be challenged; the Congress has positioned itself as the fulcrum of the opposition, he told PTI. The yatra has resuscitated hopes of a more even contest in 2024, he added.