If L. K. Advani’s Rath Yatra heralded a bold polarisation process on the basis of religion, Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is kickstarting a ‘counter-polarisation’ and trying to draw a new political framework for the anti-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and anti-Bharatiya Janata Party forces.
It’s a risk-fraught political game because the BJP started it in the ’80s and has mastered the art of polarising communities, being far ahead on the track.
Throughout the yatra, Rahul went for a maximalist position on the issue of secularism. He painted the RSS-BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as extreme communalists in a way that was harsher than ever before. In his last speech in Srinagar on 30 January, while speaking about his family’s sufferings due to violence, he said: “Jo hinsa karwaate hain, jaise ki Modi ji hain, [Home Minister] Amit Shah ji hain, [National Security Advisor] Ajit Doval ji hain, RSS hai, woh iss baat ko samajh nahi sakte (Those who promote violence, including PM Modi, Amit Shah, Ajit Doval, RSS, won’t understand the pain of it).”
This yatra was well-conceived to help Rahul Gandhi fight his ‘image’ crisis, add energy to the almost-incurable lethargy of Congress leaders, and, above all, to prove to sundry regional parties that the Congress remains the principal opposition to the BJP and Rahul will keep challenging Modi every day.
A wavering heir and fifth-generation dynast of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Rahul Gandhi has toiled for his first notable political success, showing commitment to the difficult journey that crossed 75 districts in 14 states in 135 days since it started in September 2022.
Also read: Has Bharat Jodo Yatra lowered communal tempers or is it naive optimism? My take
Emerging as the ‘leader’
During the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi was joined by thousands of people belonging to diverse cultures and speaking their own languages. His warm interactions with women, children, and the poor were projected brilliantly by brand management company Teen Bandar, founded by Prashant Chari and Savio Joseph. The yatra’s gross cost, organisers say, is estimated to be around Rs 100 crore.
After the 2014 Lok Sabha election defeat, Congress members thought about resetting the party. Karnataka MP Jairam Ramesh had reportedly suggested that Rahul Gandhi embark on such a yatra. Recently, political strategist Prashant Kishor had suggested the same too. Rahul himself has claimed that he toyed with the idea for some time before executing it.
He emerged through the Bharat Jodo Yatra as a compassionate leader who will not be cowed down by the BJP’s politics. “Daro mat (Do not be afraid),” he said a thousand times, “Don’t fear the BJP.” Any notice by the Enforcement Directorate or summons by the Central Bureau of Investigation won’t shrink the political ground Rahul has gained. If anything, he will gain sympathy. He hit the BJP hardest when he said: “Main nafrat ke bazaar mein pyaar, mohabbat ki dukaan kholne aaya hoon (I have come to open a counter of love in the bazaar of hatred).”
Now, the Gandhi family’s hold over the party is even stronger with greater approval from the general public.
Also read: All the criticism against Bharat Jodo Yatra shows it has arrived in the national…
The yatra’s winning acts
The most important achievement of the Bharat Jodo Yatra is that the workers of the Congress party have developed the self-confidence to stand up against the BJP and ‘Modi magic’. The energy of a political cadre helps win an election as much as the leadership does. It’s quite clear that Rahul Gandhi will be the Congress’ prime ministerial candidate in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
What was really heartening to see in the yatra was India’s emotionally charged people displaying their power. The leader can establish himself by wandering around people. The lakhs who joined Rahul Gandhi on his padayatra have helped change his image by just standing with him in selfies.
“The pappu sticker has come off,” said political activist Yogendra Yadav, Rahul’s fellow yatri.
On YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter, there was BJP-style carpet bombing of the yatra. Daily footage of Rahul intermingling with Indians — from Kanyakumari to Srinagar — emerged as a winning act.
The BJP and its supporters argue that the Bharat Jodo Yatra won’t gather votes for the Congress in 2024. But, in near future, if the Congress wins in any state, it will be attributed to Rahul alone. In Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh, both the Congress and BJP will put up a tough fight. The outcome will reflect the yatra’s legacy.
Some Congress members thought that Rahul’s naive comments in his various press conferences brought the party’s hopes down. His image took another beating when he incorrectly spoke about the Yangste clash of December 2022: “Hamaare sainik pit rahe hain (Indian soldiers are being bashed by the Chinese).”
But now, Rahul is better than before.
In India, voters don’t make netas. They merely select the leader offered to them by political parties. And these leaders come with their strengths and weaknesses. Modi’s supporters think that he is the best of the lot. Even those who think differently may vote for him due to other considerations such as caste and religion or purely on the basis of his oratorical prowess. Only when anti-Modi votes gather critical mass will voters select better netas from the non-BJP lot.
Where the yatra fell short
The biggest weakness of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, quote Rahul Gandhi’s critics within and outside the Congress, was that it was efficiently executed but failed in political messaging.
India is talking about the yatra, but it’s no rage.
Rahul is still reluctant to convincingly spell out his views on sensitive issues — on Article 370, he would just say he endorses the Congress Working Committee’s (CWC) resolution.
The route from Kanyakumari to Srinagar was not tactically smart at all, claim his own party people.
And the critics kept asking: ‘What is his locus standi except that he is a dynast?’ ‘When will he end enjoying power without responsibilities?’
The party suffered a big political jolt when Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge invited 23 parties to Srinagar to mark the culmination of the yatra but just eight turned up.
Another failure in the game of perception was that in such a buzz-creating yatra, not one new Congress leader was born. Pramod Mahajan, M. Venkaiah Naidu, Narendra Modi and a bunch of other leaders had emerged from Advani’s and Murli Manohar Joshi’s yatras. Advani had been potent, crystal-clear, and radical in his ideas.
Rahul’s talk about love versus the BJP’s hate lacked specific anecdotes and depth. His statement that he is not walking to amass votes sounded unreasonable. In a fast-changing India, if you don’t beg for votes upfront, it will take decades to grab voters’ attention. Is the Congress planning for a long haul?
Indians’ daring pragmatism and resilience have proved that most voters don’t speak the pyaar–mohabbat language on an empty stomach.
Talk of development, generating jobs, giving free ration and liveable houses to the poor, and the ‘love talk’ will follow automatically.
Rahul failed to create enough political heft for even his ally Sharad Pawar to join him. It’s a silent signal from non-BJP leaders that they don’t think pitting Rahul against Modi in 2024 is a good idea. One is sure that the BJP’s fast-paced machinery will take lessons from the yatra and update its strategy while the Congress will look up to Rahul and wait for his command.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra may have helped Rahul more than Congress whose walk has just begun.
Sheela Bhatt is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @sheela2010. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)