Rahul Gandhi and the Congress should not miss this opportunity. He needs to impress the public that he is a 'doer'
Image building is a politically important tool for present-day politicians worldwide, and India is no exception. They employ specialised image-building companies, which tell their clients what to wear, how to speak, and what issues should be focused on at considerable costs to capture power.
In the past decade, many leaders have engaged these companies to build their public persona. They include Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, MK Stalin (Tamil Nadu), Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal), and K Chandrashekhar Rao (Telangana).
Political yatras too have been around since the days of Mahatma Gandhi's Dandi March in 1930. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's present' Bharat Jodo' Yatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir is one such considerable mass contact programme. Others like NT Rama Rao and LK Advani had undertaken similar yatras on 'raths' or buses. Some others, like Vinobha Bhave, Janata party president Chandrashekhar (1983), and Andhra Pradesh Congress leader YS Rajasekhara Reddy (2004) have also done yatras.
Since 2004, when Rahul entered politics as the first time Member of Parliament, he has been trying out different images for himself. Rahul is now attempting to portray a new persona. He wants to challenge and 'rescue' the country from PM Modi, donning the role of a man of the masses and a grassroots leader—a leader for women and youth.
First, Rahul claimed to be in the learning process throughout Congress-led UPA rule (2004-14). He tinkered with the Youth Congress but failed. Then he projected himself as an angry young man, restless to change the system, and later on a reformer with new ideas of democracy. After the party's miserable defeat in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls and losing 45 times in different states, Rahul resigned as the party chief in August 2019. And since then, he has been working through remote control.
Rahul is attempting a last-ditch effort with this mass contact programme to connect with the sections that have moved to other parties. The Congress has been out of power for the past ten years. The next Lok Sabha polls are just two years away. And the workers will be demoralised further if the party loses in 2024.
The current campaign will provide him with a platform to improve his image. The mass contact programme is a significant show in post-Independent India, with a sizable contingent of Congress members, including party MPs participating, covering 3,500 kilometers through twelve states and two Union Territories in the next 150 days. Over 200 civil society organisations also support the move. The slogan for the Yatra is "mile kadam, jude vatan" (walk together, unite the country).
During the next 150 days of the Yatra, Rahul Gandhi will remain a great listener. "This is a public, open, transparent exercise," says party spokesman Jairam Ramesh.
Rahul has little to show what he has done so far.
On the other hand, the BJP wants to depict Rahul as intellectually inadequate, emotionally unstable, organisationally inept, and a money launderer.
This yatra is the most protracted campaign in Rahul's nearly two-decade political career. He has cycled to Parliament to protest against high fuel prices. Rahul's strategists have released pictures of his bodybuilding exercises, his culinary skills, and swimming with fishermen.
The question is whether Rahul can convert the crowds into voters. Rahul claims he will be an alternative to the "politics of fear, bigotry and prejudice" and the "economics of livelihood destruction, increasing unemployment and growing inequalities".
He aspires that the yatra was like a Tapasya for him and that he was ready for the "long battle" to unite the country.
However, there are many ifs and buts in the gamble. Will Rahul be able to go through this ordeal without taking a holiday break?
Secondly, sustaining the public interest for five long months is hard. Rahul has to find something new to keep himself and Congress in the news. He will not even be able to quit halfway without losing face.
Thirdly, the momentum should be sustained until the 2024 polls. It is a challenging task for Rahul ahead.
Fourthly, he can enjoy the success of the yatra only if he leads from the front.
Sonia Gandhi described the march as a "landmark occasion". The yatra could be a "transformational moment" for Indian politics, and a "decisive moment" for the party's rejuvenation.
Rahul and the party should not miss this opportunity. He needs to impress the public that he is a 'doer'. Mass contact programs generally help politicians.
(The author is a senior journalist)