On January 14, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi will be ready to embark on part two of the Bharat Jodo Yatra from Manipur. The unity journey will take him across the heart of India and is expected to culminate in Mumbai. In his first tatra, Rahul covered 4,500 km on foot, along with 200 fellow travellers. His critics and detractors would expectedly treat this exercise as another futile attempt to shore up the sagging political fortunes of the party, especially after the Congress party’s loss in the Hindi belt in the recently held Assembly elections. The fact is that everything Rahul Gandhi does becomes a subject of extensive and possibly repeated discussion in both political circles and social settings. Despite facing criticism or ridicule from BJP, Rahul is an individual who simply cannot be disregarded from the collective consciousness of the people and politicians. The recurring theme in these discussions is that despite undertaking numerous arduous journeys on foot, his party will continue to remain rudderless for years to come due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decisive impact after every election.
On December 28, most national dailies carried a photograph of Rahul Gandhi wrestling with Olympic medallist Bajrang Punia on his visit to Haryana to show solidarity with the wrestlers. In our country, it’s rare to see photographs of a politician feeling at ease while freely mingling with sportspersons and lightening up the atmosphere. A few years ago, Rahul Gandhi on his visit to Kerala enjoyed taking laps as he joined several fishermen on a fishing expedition. Wherever Rahul goes, he exhibits spontaneity in his actions. However, his detractors often perceive these spontaneous activities as frivolous and inconsequential and, they believe, unbecoming of a senior politician. Whether one agrees or not, a padayatra is invariably a physically and mentally demanding endeavour. However, this approach often proves to be cathartic, particularly in a political landscape where politicians are commonly associated with demagoguery and rhetorical flourishes. As a politician, Rahul has consistently avoided the well-trodden path of always connecting with the masses through addresses from podiums. One is reminded of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar who embarked on a Bharat Yatra in 1983, with the objective of connecting with the masses and getting a measure of their problems and sufferings. Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra didn’t significantly alter his or his party’s political fortunes, much like Chandra Shekhar’s Bharat Yatra, which failed to transform him into a national icon or propel him into the political stratosphere in the subsequent years. But both these politicians will always be remembered for their unique approaches in connecting with the nation and focusing on understanding the pulse of the people, rather than engaging in the typical rhetoric of speeches. Regardless of Rahul’s future status in politics, his inclination toward peripatetic activities, such as undertaking padayatras, is expected to continue in the coming years.
This leads us to the inevitable question: Should Rahul Gandhi step away from active politics to assume an advisory role within the party as needed? It’s a bold and upfront query that might be met with resounding cries of ‘no’. Perhaps it is difficult to imagine the Congress without Rahul, just as it is difficult to imagine the BJP without Modi. I am sure nobody within the Congress party would want Rahul, the quintessential Pied Piper, to hang up his political boots because his words are a lighthouse in the fog, offering clarity amidst confusion. Rahul’s ability to raise pertinent questions about Modi and his party on important issues cannot be questioned or doubted. His leadership may have been a busted flush, but Rahul has demonstrated significant potential as an articulate and persuasive speaker in the last few years. Perhaps, his outspokenness may have become his biggest liability because successful political navigation requires a balance of tact, artfulness and chutzpah within a specific environment or eco-system. When he speaks, he doesn’t care whether his words would please or displease a certain constituency or the media. Recently, Rahul told the media in no uncertain terms to focus on genuine issues following the suspension of more than 150 MPs, rather than solely focusing on Kalyan Banerjee’s mimicry of vice-president Jagdeep Dhankar.
Simultaneously, it’s undeniable that Rahul has struggled to rejuvenate the party and prepare it for general elections since 2014. Doubts about his competence and effectiveness as a leader have persistently arisen — perhaps, with valid reason. The party currently suffers from a lack of ideological coherence. Additionally, senior leaders have notably failed to significantly impact the party’s political fortunes in the Hindi belt during the recent assembly elections. It is premature to make any conclusion about whether Rahul’s second round of the Bharat Jodo Yatra will yield political dividends for Congress in the upcoming general elections. However, there is a collective admiration for Rahul’s image — a man traversing the country on foot, engaging with people of all ages, embracing them, and sharing moments that resonate.
The writer is a journalist based in Delhi