Unless you are an incorrigible optimist, you will find it hard to believe that Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra has been a stupendous success, bestowing at long last the glow of an election-winning charisma on the yatri. Into its fourth month now, the yatra has not exactly set the Yamuna on fire. If we discount the usual cheerleaders, an objective assessment of Mr Gandhi’s long trek through the country suggests it has failed to galvanise the Congress rank and file, or what remains of it after a series of debilitating electoral routs.
Admittedly, a lot of thought and preparation has gone into the organisation of the yatra. But the luxurious motorised caravan and the homes-on-wheels that accompany Mr Gandhi along with a retinue of attendants do not do much to hide the fact that there is not a great deal of support for the famous Yatri in much of the country. Of course, Congress politicians have felt obliged to render all possible support, including gathering crowds wherever they could drum up support for the Gandhi scion, but the vital element missing is the connect with ordinary men and women. Carefully curated photographs of Mr Gandhi walking with ordinary people or an occasional notable like former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan fail to mask the underwhelming response. Yet, the latest political pilgrim’s foot march through the dusty streets and gullies of India could still prove beneficial should it acquaint him with the real India, an India that continues to be steeped in poverty and ignorance, far away from the sheltered world of forbidding security rings in the heart of Lutyens’s Delhi.
One reason the yatra may have failed to click with the masses is the lack of a clear objective. To call it ‘Bharat Jodo’ is pretentious. Given that the journey is an attempt to help Mr Gandhi gain some relevance, discover the real India and find the correct idiom to connect with it, hiding behind a highfalutin rubric wasn’t going to fool anyone. A real Bharat Jodo mission would have elicited the willing support of other Opposition groups and lent the yatra heft and political significance. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, the yatra remains an exclusive Congress enterprise and is political at its core, intending to re-launch Mr Gandhi for the nth time so that he emerges as the foremost challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Seen from that perspective, the yatra is also meant to put other groups on notice about Mr Gandhi’s claim to be projected as the Opposition’s prime ministerial candidate.
Given his inherent inability to articulate his views clearly on any single issue of import, Mr Gandhi has failed to emphasise his core message. Homilies about love from the mouths of politicians otherwise engaged in the cut-throat tussle for votes sound hollow, especially when the messenger alternates between soft Hindutva and some lip service to minority rights. This duplicity singes the messenger, with neither the majority nor the biggest minority reposing trust in him.
Aside from the yatras undertaken by freedom fighters, the post-Independence period has seen a number of successful cross-country journeys by politicians. The late former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar undertook one in the 1980s, generating quite a media buzz. Then, the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy undertook one in Andhra Pradesh when the state was firmly in the grip of the Telugu Desam Party. In the state election that followed in 2004, Mr Reddy tasted success, becoming Chief Minister and founding his own political dynasty. His son, YS Jaganmohan Reddy, then in the political wilderness, undertook his own arduous trek, going from village to village and surprising all observers with a huge majority in the ensuing Assembly election. But the most successful, and most political, yatra was, without doubt, LK Advani’s Rath Yatra in 1990. It laid the foundation for the BJP’s electoral success, though in the immediate aftermath of the yatra there was much communal strife and violence. If Mr Gandhi’s yatra falls short of its objective, it will be due in no small measure to its confused messaging and equally confused yatri.
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