With Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, the grand old party is trying to reach out to people in remote areas and villages
Congress would like to rebrand Rahul Gandhi as a young, caring, and ideological leader before the 2024 polls. Has Rahul shown a new image after the Bharat Jodo Yatra, completed over 100 days, as intended? For the first time after many years, the grand old party is trying to reach out to people in remote areas and villages.
True to the script, he has shown a different persona during the yatra—a son was tying his mother's shoelaces, hugging older women, and playing with children—as a kind, warm-hearted person. Rahul began his 3,500-km journey from Kanyakumari, flagged by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin, on September 7. It has taken a recess for a week and will resume on January 3. It will end in Jammu and Kashmir by the end of January.
It is time to assess the impact so far of the yatra on the party, the Opposition, the ruling BJP, and the public. Rahul maintains that the yatra is not for political or personal interest but against the politics of hate, fear, and violence. He has impressed the public with his tireless walking, sweating in the heat and dust, and soaking in the rain—all with one aim—to fight the RSS. One cannot find fault with Rahul's efforts. He is physically quite fit.
As the yatra marches on, Rahul sticks to his narrative, "we are here to open the shop of love in your bazaar of hatred”. Gandhi has covered parts of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Haryana and Delhi.
During the yatra, Rahul gets first-hand information from the cadre. Congress workers who had come out of their homes, in the streets, and on the road these past few months accompanied him. The response in the south cheered the Congress and alerted the BJP.
Will the yatra help Congress to get better electoral gains? And will it change perceptions about Rahul? He has changed his campaign style to a nuanced one. Listening to senior leaders in his party, Rahul has demonstrated restraint in personally attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His aggressive attack on Modi in 2019 had not clicked.
Secondly, his criticism of the business houses of Adani and Ambani, whom he alleged Modi had favoured, has become subtle and nuanced. Rahul questions India's wealth concentrated in the hands of a few individuals without taking their names.
Thirdly, Rahul talks of love and hatred and how the RSS brand of politics has torn society with hate. As for the impact on Congress, the Yatra's response has boosted the workers' morale. There are plans to ask the state leaders to cover their respective states on foot following this Yatra in the months ahead.
Rahul's efforts have temporarily united the factional Congress leaders in different states, including Karnataka, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where Congress has a direct fight with BJP.
As for the ruling BJP, it is clear that the Modi government first ridiculed but is now disturbed about the Yatra. Initially, the BJP wrote off the Yatra, claiming it would only click in the south, where the BJP is weak. Crowds in Tamil Nadu were credited to the ruling DMK, a Congress ally.
So, the government has cautioned Rahul and his party about the increasing covid cases to destabilize the Yatra. While Yatra's success in the south has been good, it is a question of whether the other regional satraps would join the Yatra. Some prominent opposition leaders, particularly in UP, have given a lukewarm response to Rahul's invitation to join the Yatra. Keeping the 2024 elections and nine Assembly polls this year in mind, Rahul has signaled to the opposition leaders to unite if they want to halt the BJP juggernaut.
Over the past 100-odd days, Congress Chief Ministers, some Bollywood actors, academics, activists, and even some opposition leaders from other parties have joined the march in a show of support. Former Reserve Bank Governor Raghuram Rajan's presence added to the prestige of the march.
The Congress hopes its three-pronged attack on the Modi government, India's China's policy, inflation, and unemployment, would capture popular support. However, it may not alter the political landscape but may strengthen the democratic process.
Though the Congress has begun well, it still needs a popular political narrative to lure swing voters, especially the middle classes. Can Congress rise to the challenge of keeping the momentum up till the 2024 Lok Sabha polls? Will Congress work hard to improve its electoral prospects, harvesting the goodwill from the yatra? However, Congress's new-found agility is yet to translate into electoral success. The results of the nine Assembly elections this year will give some clues.
(The author is a senior journalist)