Congress plans ambitious Bharat Jodo Yatra, but not without controversies

Congress plans ambitious Bharat Jodo Yatra, but not without controversies

There is as much cautious optimism within the Congress party as there is a sense of disquiet and doubt over the soon to be launched Bharat Jodo Yatra.

With its electoral footprint vastly diminished, its organisation in a perpetual state of drift and its leadership question still unresolved, the party’s biggest mass contact programme in decades, scheduled to begin from Kanyakumari on September 7, has been long overdue.

The promise of a ‘Kanyakumari to Kashmir’ padyatra by party leaders to “unite India” in these highly polarised times was made by interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi in May after her party concluded its three-day Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir in Rajasthan’s Udaipur. Party leaders from across the country had sent suggestions and recommendations for drafting the yatra’s blueprint to a panel headed by Digvijaya Singh that had been tasked by Sonia to work out finer nuances of the public outreach effort.

Around India in 150 days

However, as Singh and Congress communications department chief Jairam Ramesh unveiled the yatra’s logo, brochures, theme and tagline, on Tuesday (August 23), it seemed less like an enterprise to pivot the party back to its central position in India’s polity and more an admission of how distrustful many had become of the country’s oldest political outfit.

At the face of it, the Singh-led panel has done a fairly credible job of finalising the yatra’s roadmap. The padyatra will cover 3,570 km, from Kanyakumari to Srinagar, over a period of 150 days, making its way from Tamil Nadu in the south to Jammu and Kashmir in the north via cities in Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Punjab. In states that won’t fall on the yatra’s route, multiple truncated versions of the padyatra will be organised simultaneously alongwith a parallel ‘Save the Constitution’ march to highlight the Modi government’s alleged abuse of the Constitution.

Also read: Cong in a fix over new party president as Rahul is still reluctant to accept role

Participants of the main Kanyakumari to Kashmir Bharat Jodo Yatra will be divided into three categories – 100 party leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, will undertake the full 3,750 km journey on foot, 100 leaders from states that aren’t en route will join the main yatra at regular intervals and another 100 will be drawn from the Congress units of states where the yatra will make stops.

 Stress on ‘economic inequality’, ‘polarisation’, ‘political divide’

The “tagline” of the yatra is “Mile Kadam, Jude Vatan” (march to unite the country). Congress’s communication department chief Jairam Ramesh said besides mass contact, the participants of the Bharat Jodo Yatra will also address issues arising out of three broad themes during the course of the march – rising economic inequality under the Narendra Modi government, communal and social polarisation by the BJP in the name of caste, religion, language, food habits, etc. and political divisions created by the NDA government by attacks on the country’s federal structure, abuse of the Constitution and misuse of central institutions.

So far, so good – but here comes in the element of self-doubt craftily masqueraded under the guise of pragmatic politics.

Consider this: – the yatra will not feature the party’s flag, symbol or images of any party leaders – past or present – in its promotional material. The eight-page brochure released by Singh and Ramesh highlighting various aspects of the padyatra makes just one mention of the party on Page 7: “the Congress party is playing a key role in organising the Yatra, and our senior leaders, including Rahul Gandhi, will actively participate in the Yatra”.

Party leaders privy to the preparations for the yatra told The Federal that the reason for having a promotional material for the march that is distinct from the usual publicity material that the party uses for its events – the Congress flag, the party’s election symbol, posters featuring Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, etc. – is to ensure participation of Opposition parties, public organisations and civil society influencers who harbour reservations against being directly affiliated with the Congress.

Congress woos civil society as allies give a wide berth

A senior party leader said that in the Singh-led panel’s interactions with diverse civil society groups, public intellectuals and Opposition politicians, a “major concern” that many raised was over “who will lead the yatra.” “Some insisted that the march must be apolitical to the extent that a direct affiliation with the Congress must be avoided, some said they had reservations over Rahul Gandhi leading the yatra, some feared a pushback by the government against their organisations for supporting a Congress initiative and others said the movement must steer clear of projecting any leader as Modi’s alternative in the 2024 elections – the common thread in all these reservations was they did not want a direct affiliation with the Congress and that the party must not use it to push Rahul’s political image,” the leader said.

However, this strategy has only paid off partially and it is obvious that the result isn’t flattering for the Congress party. As things stand presently, despite strident efforts of hard-selling the Yatra as an essential initiative to preserve the idea of India, no Congress’s ally – DMK, NCP, Shiv Sena, RJD, JMM, JD (U), IUML, etc. – or other Opposition outfit has, so far, acceded to the Gandhi family’s calls for participating in the march. This, despite leaders of several of these outfits routinely pontificating about the need to display Opposition unity.

In the absence of support from its allies, the Congress has turned to seeking help of ‘civil society’ representatives in populating the march. On August 22, Rahul Gandhi interacted with some 150 public intellectuals, representatives of civil society, various unions and NGOs at Delhi’s Constitution Club.

Among those present to hear Rahul’s appeal were activists and intellectuals such as Aruna Roy, Devanur Mahadeva, Bezwada Wilson, PV Rajagopal, Syeda Hameed and GN Devy. It also included also Yogendra Yadav (a bitter Congress critic who had famously demanded after the 2019 Lok Sabha polls that “the Congress must die”) and Sudheendra Kulkarni (who too was fiercely critical of the Gandhis until his own run in the BJP ended abruptly some 13 years ago and who is identified even till date as a close aide of the late Atal Behari Vajpayee).

Yogendra Yadav: the bone of contention

Yadav’s presence at Rahul’s interaction riled not just a section of party leaders, but also several others from the civil society who have previously been sympathetic towards the Congress. An academic who has written and spoken extensively about the contributions of Jawaharlal Nehru to India as well as the need to preserve Nehru’s idea of India stayed away from the interaction.

“It is all very well for the Congress to try and unite everyone under its Bharat Jodo Yatra but do you really need the support of people with a dubious past record, those who were willing participants of the RSS-backed theatrics that the country witnessed during the UPA days in the form of the Anna Movement and then continued to speak ill of the Congress and wish death upon it,” the academician told The Federal, on condition of anonymity.

Also read: Also read: Will Rahul come back? Suspense over Congress’ internal polls

A former civil servant who has, in recent months, been active in calling out the BJP’s attempts to create fake narratives about India’s freedom struggle and Nehru expressed a similar opinion.

“Whoever told Rahul to involve Yogendra Yadav in this process is either too magnanimous or just too foolish. This man (Yadav) was a key figure of the Anna movement though he now denies it; he then joined Arvind Kejriwal in floating the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), got thrown out of it and tried to float his own outfit which never took off… when the farmers agitation was on, he latched on to it to resurrect his own politics and then created confusion within the Samyukt Kisan Morcha… now he wants to latch on to the Congress and the Congress is laying out a red carpet for him,” the former bureaucrat said.

Ramesh too was quizzed by journalists about the party’s need to give centre stage to Yadav during Rahul’s interaction. “It is correct that many of those who met us (on August 22) had bitterly opposed our government 10 years ago but it is good that today they have realised that there is no better alternative for the country than the Congress party. They have realised that the movement they ran 10-15 years back was a misguided one,” Ramesh said.

Singh too had to jump in to clarify that though the yatra was being organised by the Congress, “we have given an open invitation to all those who want to fight against the divisive, communal ideology of the BJP… when we are calling it Bharat Jodo Yatra, we can’t start by excluding people.”

No clarity on Rahul’s role in rally

What is also conspicuous in the groundwork for the yatra is the curious contradiction that while, for all practical purposes, will be a Rahul Gandhi show, there is clear dithering on the Congress’s part in admitting that the Wayanad MP will be leading it. A section of Congress leaders believe this is another case of “poor messaging” by the party.

“We are embarking on the biggest mass contact programme that the party has organised since the Bharat Yatra of Rajiv Gandhi in 1990… in fact, the Bharat Jodo Yatra is much bigger because while Rajiv embarked on a train journey that ended within two months, this is a march on foot that will carry on for five months and yet, we are shying away from projecting either our party or our leader and that too at a time when questions have repeatedly been raised on whether Rahul will lead the party as president again… if we ourselves are scared of projecting our leader, how do we hope to inspire confidence among the public to have faith in Rahul’s vision for the country,” a party leader close to the Wayanad MP told The Federal.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra will commence at a time when the process for electing a new Congress president will be well underway. Rahul is reportedly still reluctant to take on the mantle he had quit following his party’s disastrous poll drubbing in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. He wants to see a non-Gandhi colleague in the role but there have been no serious or widely acceptable contenders so far. Congress spokespersons have been repeatedly asked if Rahul will be leading the Yatra as the party’s president – or at least be anointed midway through the march. The response from the party, however, has been noncommittal.

Also read: Has ED missed a basic legal point in the National Herald case?

A party leader who has often been critical of the Congress’s inability to set its house in order told The Federal, “basically, we will be walking the length of the country to tell people that not only have we failed in projecting a leader but that others who want to see the BJP out of power also do not see us as the natural alternative… we didn’t need to walk 3,500 kms to send this message; we have done a fairly good job of convincing people about this since 2019.”

Read More
Next Story