Home / Opinion / Columns /  ‘Bharat jodo’ is not enough to revive Congress fortunes

Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) is nearing its end. After nearly five months and 3,600 kilometres, its finale will be a mass meeting at a cricket stadium in Srinagar on 30 January, the martyrdom day of Mahatma Gandhi. The date has obviously been chosen for its symbolism. Leaders of nearly two dozen “like-minded" parties have been invited to share the stage with Rahul.

By any measure, the BJY has been an extraordinary feat of determination and physical endurance. The Congress’ communications and logistics managers have also done a great job. Gandhi seems to have garnered some fairly good crowds. But, as any seasoned political journalist knows, presence at a road show, especially in non-urban India, does not necessarily mean political support. People often turn up out of curiosity at an event that promises to be interesting. And what could be more interesting than the sight of Gandhi walking, sprinting, hugging common people? Better than the fun but predictable fare at a local mela.

Gandhi made some baffling statements during the journey. For instance, “I have killed ‘Rahul Gandhi’, the person you see is not Rahul Gandhi." “When Arjuna was focusing on the eye of the fish, did he announce his future course of action to everyone?" These could be placed right up there with Zen koans—apparently nonsensical stuff that one is asked to meditate upon to liberate the mind. Yet, Gandhi may have earned the grudging respect of many sceptics. He had promised that he would walk, and he did.

But will this expedition change the Congress party’s electoral fortunes?

No one is taken in by claims that the yatra is not about votes, but only about “truth, compassion and non-violence". This is an exercise to reposition Gandhi as a tapasvi (ascetic) who is not interested in power, is devoted to serving the people and whose heart is filled with love for every Indian. The core message: India is currently run by hatred-driven bullies, and here is the selfless saviour. Which is all very well, and Gandhi himself may have begun to believe the story, but how will that wash in elections?

Two opposition leaders not invited to the function at Srinagar are K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR), chief minister of Telangana, and Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The reasons are obvious. KCR has already declared his prime ministerial ambition and his intent to put together a non-Congress non-BJP coalition for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. He has even renamed his party to give it a national flavour—from Telangana Rashtra Samiti to Bharat Rashtra Samiti.

Kejriwal has made no such announcement, but his aspirations are clear to all. And the AAP’s strategy has been to systematically capture the traditional Congress electorate that the party has steadily lost touch with.

Mamata Banerjee has been invited to Srinagar, but it is unlikely that she will go. She declined to attend the rally KCR held at Khammam in Telangana on Thursday. Kejriwal, however, showed up. He loses nothing by being nice to the chief minister of a state in south India, a region where the AAP has zero presence. In fact, he gained some visibility in these parts and got to address a huge audience. Kejriwal will probably be patiently plotting his own moves.

Last week, after Nobel laureate Amartya Sen said in an interview that Banerjee has the “ability to be prime minister", she told a TV channel: “For me, (Sen’s) advice is an order." She has no reason to even acknowledge Gandhi’s attempt through the BJY to project himself as the face of the opposition for the 2024 general elections and has been pointedly silent about the yatra, even when goaded by the Congress.

Here is an interesting statistic. In the last financial year, Banerjee’s party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), received more funds than the Congress. A study of the annual audit reports of all eight national parties for 2021-22 reveals that, though far behind the Bharatiya Janata Party ( 3,289 crore), the TMC, which has till now failed to make any headway outside West Bengal, was in second spot with 545.7 crore, ahead of the Congress—which got 541.2 crore. This is an indication of the uphill task that the Congress is likely to face under Gandhi.

While Parliamentary elections are at least 14 months away, as many as nine states, in most of which the Congress is either in power or is the chief opposition, go to the polls this year. The yatra would definitely have enthused the party’s cadre. But the truth is that a BJY and a Rahul Gandhi image makeover do not evict many of the elephants snoozing in plain sight in the Congress’ room. Power remains tightly centralized in one family, however much Gandhi may portray himself as being above it all. Sycophants and minions of the family, whether they have any popular following or not, remain the favoured lot. Factionalism is rife even in states where the Congress runs the government. In large swathes of the country, its grassroot-level organization is in shambles. And it seems certain that the leader himself will keep making statements that are hard to comprehend and rival parties could go to town with.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra may have helped him counter various negative perceptions, especially about his dedication to public life. But in politics, these effects can wear off pretty quickly. Once the yatra ends, Rahul Gandhi will need to work much harder with all his faculties to build on what his feet have laboured so hard to achieve.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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