Bharat Jodo Yatra: Will Rahul Gandhi's long foot march change Congress' fortune?

Bharat Jodo Yatra: Will Rahul Gandhi's long foot march change Congress' fortune?

The Bharat Jodo Yatra culminated in Srinagar, and we think we have got answers to some questions.

Tejas JoshiUpdated: Monday, January 30, 2023, 10:40 PM IST
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Rahul Gandhi addressing the culmination event of Bharat Jodo Yatra in Srinagar, J&K. | Sajad Hameed

Never did American activist Joan Baez's words 'Action is the antidote to despair' ring truer in the context of the Indian politics than in the case of the distressed Indian National Congress. Down and out in two successive general elections and losing one after another state assembly elections, many political pundits wrote down the Grand Old Party. The Congress failed to convince the voters, especially the fence sitters, on why they should vote for it. Even as the 2024 general elections kept coming closer, the Congress' prospects of making even a slightest of comeback looked bleak. The Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi suffered perception problem, making the once powerful political force a pariah for majority voters.

When the Bharat Jodo Yatra started...

When it seemed that the Congress, its leadership and cadre were in 'despair', came the 'antidote' on 7 September, 2022. The Gandhi scion, termed as non-serious leader, took up an arduous 'action' foot march from the Southern tip of the country (Kanyakumari) to the Northern end (Srinagar). When the ambitious 'Bharat Jodo Yatra' was announced, the BJP mocked it. But even some Congress leaders found it hard to digest that Rahul Gandhi would toil so hard to make a point for himself and his party. Will Rahul Gandhi really walk over 3,500 kms on foot? Will he fly abroad in the midst of this Yatra? Will he manage to garner crowds in Northern India? These and many more questions were hurled at the INC and the Wayanad MP.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra culminated in Srinagar, and we think we have got answers to those questions. Rahul Gandhi has certainly broken shackles of his neatly conceived image by his critics. He also succeeded in completing the Yatra by walking over four months. He surprisingly pulled crowds even after his Yatra moved from the South to the North.

Rahul Gandhi in Srinagar.

Rahul Gandhi in Srinagar. | Sajad Hameed

However, it is too early to predict whether the success of Yatra will translate into votes. The Yatra has built a persona of Rahul Gandhi and shown the other side of him to masses. But even Congress leaders are not sure if the Yatra will help party pull more votes.

If the credit for the success of this yatra has to go to someone, it is Rahul Gandhi. Rahul has emerged as a leader through this foot march. Congress, on the other hand, still looks far away from getting its house in order.

In this article, let us for now put aside the negatives that the INC has to deal with. Here, according to us, are the benefits that Congress would get from the long Bharat Jodo Yatra.

Nafrat Chodo? A solid front against politics of hatred

The name Bharat Jodo Yatra is self-defining. The primary purpose of this Yatra was to give an alternate vision of politics. That vision is of secularism in its ideology, and doesn't differentiate between people based on religion, race, ethnicity or caste.

In his Yatra, Rahul Gandhi frequently took potshots at the BJP and RSS for spreading hatred and animosity between communities. In his speech from the Red Fort, as Rahul imitated 'Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Muslim' debates on Tv channels, crowds cheered for him in agreement.

Gandhi was also thoughtful enough to visit temples, mosques, churches and Gurudwaras during his journey. Through this, he highlighted the Congress' ideology of secularism.

"That's what he did. He underlined a parallel philosophy in front of the BJP. The philosophy preached by Rahul has been actually the real Idea of India of founding fathers," says Raju Parulekar, a prominent political commentator and interviewer.

"People are now fed up of the tactics used to divide them. This could be seen in the resounding success of Shah Rukh Khan's Pathaan. The real India is not divided on the lines of religion. This divide has been synthetically created," Parulekar stressed.

"This Yatra proved that India is not that divided, people don't have animosity for each other."

Rahul Gandhi with his supporters in Punjab.

Rahul Gandhi with his supporters in Punjab. | INC

Has Rahul's image changed?

Gandhi has walked over almost 4,000 kms and interacted with thousands of people from different Indian states. He has also addressed multiple rallies and press conferences. It has become abundantly clear that the BJP can no more tag the Gandhi scion with demeaning adjectives.

Many online and offline would accept that their perception about Rahul Gandhi has changed. That doesn't necessarily mean that they will vote for Rahul Gandhi or the Congress party in upcoming elections. However, they would not write him down without even listening to his point of views on issues.

This perception change was brought in by hectic social media management, interviews and interactions. Even as Gandhi ended his 25 kms daily walk, his social media team kept pumping out videos, reels, pictures, interviews and interactions with workers. The visibility for the Congress and Rahul Gandhi on mainstream TV and social media was suddenly up. He was visible to people and they could see how he walked, talked and smiled.

In a country like India, persona of a leader of the party decides if it will gain votes. People vote for leaders rather than voting for parties. The Congress took a page from PM Modi's playbook. The party focused on building Rahul's persona.

The interactions with YouTubers and influences were part of this PR plan. Rather than giving interviews to mainstream media, Rahul gave interviews to young YouTubers. These interviews did their work to show the humane side of Gandhi. These tactics helped establish Rahul Gandhi as a leader, especially for Gen Z. That means, even if the Congress does not get votes in immediate future, Rahul is poised to be popular when the Gen Z gets voting rights.

All and all, Gandhi's image saw uptick, thanks to improved social media management and new PR strategy.

"He was never a non-serious politician. He spoke about Adani in 2014, look what has happened now. He was the first one to speak about the GST, demonetisation and even the pandemic. What more seriousness do you expect?" says Parulekar.

Cadre charged, waiting for orders

The presence of the Congress cadre on ground had become close to nil after the 2019 loss. You could not spot Congress flags, party offices or workers on streets. It felt like the party had gone into such oblivion that it would not stage a comeback anytime soon.

However, as the Bharat Jodo Yatra started, the Congress cadre, sitting idle for last three years, suddenly sensed an opportunity. Those who were disillusioned in the Congress' senior leadership realised that they could get to interact with Rahul Gandhi directly. They brought in huge crowds to attend the foot march, and in return, got to meet their leader, interact with him, and get a picture clicked with him.

One of the political analysts said and we couldn't agree more: 'Looks like the whole Congress is on streets'. The Yatra, undoubtedly, has inspired the Congress workers.

Rahul Gandhi with actress Urmila Matondkar during Bharat Jodo Yatra

Rahul Gandhi with actress Urmila Matondkar during Bharat Jodo Yatra | INC

Rahul contains infighting, opposition within Congress

When was the last time you heard the word G-23? Well, not in the past few months. The 23 senior Congress leaders, who wrote to the Congress president complaining, suddenly found themselves in spot of bother. Mallikarjun Kharge, one of the senior most leaders of the party, was elected the President. Rahul's Yatra attracted massive crowds. In the end, the G-23 had nothing to complain about.

Majority of leaders from the 'G-23' walked with Gandhi in this march. From Manish Tewari, to Shashi Tharoor, Bhupinder Singh Hooda to Prithviraj Chauhan, they all eventually gathered around their leader.

With this Yatra, Rahul Gandhi seems to have established himself as a leader, at least inside his party.

Raju Parulekar, however, says that Congress has not been traditional political party in this sense. "Congress is not a cadre-based party. It is a movement. There have always been differences within Congress, even during the times of Mahatma Gandhi. The Congress has been split so many times. So establishing leadership has nothing to do with dissent in party. The Congress is not like the BJP in this context. There will always be different point of views in Congress," he said.

Rahul Gandhi with one of the G-23 leaders Manish Tewari during Bharat Jodo Yatra in Punjab.

Rahul Gandhi with one of the G-23 leaders Manish Tewari during Bharat Jodo Yatra in Punjab. | Manish Tewari twitter

Pulled huge crowds, even in Kashmir

The naysayers and critics of the Congress laughed off at the probability of Rahul Gandhi pulling crowds during this Yatra. As Rahul himself has said in several press conferences, "They said crowds will not come after Kerala, but response was bigger in Karnataka. Then they said Maharashtra will not see huge crowds, and they swelled more. Then they said in North India, the Yatra will fail. But even larger crowds came in Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi."

What came as a surprise to many was the response in Jammu and Kashmir, especially in the valley.

After former J&K CM Mehbooba Mufti walked with Gandhi in the valley, she took to Twitter . Mufti said, "it is the first time since 2019 that Kashmiris have come out of their homes in such massive numbers".

Many political experts also echoed the same feeling. Some went to the extent of saying that this is the biggest mass mobilisation in the Kashmir valley after the funeral procession of Hizbul commander Burhan Wani in 2016. And that says a lot about what Gandhi has achieved in tumultuous and unstable times in Kashmir.

"The crowds show that there is still significant support for the values he is preaching. It was a test for him as he passed Vindhya range, but still crowds swelled. He attracted crowds even in Uttar Pradesh. People still want to live their life with love and brotherhood. So that's obviously going to benefit the Congress," says Raju Parulekar.

Amplified important issues like inflation, unemployment and Chinese incursions

The Yatra's principle aim was to fight the hate and violence prevailing in the country. But it also raised the important issues like inflation, unemployment, crony capitalism and Chinese incursions.

Rahul Gandhi, during the march, interacted with various groups impacted by the aforementioned issues. Videos of such interactions were amplified by the Congress' social media team. Attempts were made to explain in simple language the issues having complex nuances. Experts like Raghuram Rajan spoke at length on their area of expertise.

Rahul Gandhi poses for a picture with opposition leaders at the end of Bharat Jodo Yatra.

Rahul Gandhi poses for a picture with opposition leaders at the end of Bharat Jodo Yatra. | Sajad Hameed

Will it help Congress win 2024?

The question that's being asked from all quarters after the culmination of the Bharat Jodo Yatra is whether it will pull voters towards Congress once again. So will Congress get more votes because of Bharat Jodo Yatra? No, it won't. Is Congress better positioned than it was four months ago to take on the BJP? It sure is.

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