A thick carpet of snow covered Srinagar on the morning of January 30. And snowflakes kept falling. The white and cold drape on the city formed the backdrop for the conclusion of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who was journeying through the length of the country braving the heat and the rain, shared his feelings about the yatra at the Sher-i-Kashmir stadium as snow interspersed with raindrops fell down incessantly.
The crowd in front of the dais was sparse, huddled underneath a thicket of umbrellas. Party leaders said it was partly because of the snowfall and the tight security restrictions in Srinagar. The leaders on the stage too, their numbers affected by the inclement weather, kept their speeches brief. Rahul wore a grey ‘pheran’, a tribute to his Kashmiri roots and a marked departure from his T-shirt and track pants routine on the yatra. Waving away a security person who had rushed to him with an umbrella, he made an unhurried speech in which he talked about the rigours of the long walk from Kanyakumari to Srinagar and highlighted that he had walked through the valley despite security threats and had got only love in return from the people.
The imagery of the leader, at the end of the 135-day yatra that began on September 7 at the southernmost tip of the country and passed through 12 states and two Union territories covering 3,900 km, was that of a person who was ready to endure hardship and pain in solidarity with the issues of the people. Early on during the yatra, he called himself a tapasvi and described the experience as a sort of penance. The salt and pepper beard that grew long as the journey progressed would have added to the image.
There was political talk, too, as Rahul took on the Narendra Modi government over income disparity and the border row with China. He underlined the bread-and-butter issues of unemployment and inflation. He also dealt with questions on squabbles within the Congress.
Although Rahul denied that the yatra had an electoral purpose, what was largely left unstated and meant to be conveyed through his demeanour was that he was a leader who connected with the people and was committed to their cause. The effort was to portray him as someone who was completely different from the ‘Pappu’ or the entitled dynast that his political opponents had insisted he was.
The biggest achievement for the Congress is that the image of its leader has been repaired through the walkathon. It has come as a huge relief to his supporters in the party who now feel that it will be easier to defend him in the face of attacks from political rivals.
Telangana Congress president Revanth Reddy said the manner in which Modi and the BJP reacted to the yatra was the most accurate indication of its success. “Soon after Rahul Gandhi had passed through the southern states, Modi made a highly publicised tour of the south. Why did he feel the need to do so when there were no elections in the southern states at that time? He was unnerved by the huge support that Rahul ji had got,” Reddy said.
While the Congress basks in the glow of a task well finished, the real test for both the party and Rahul would be to take forward the goodwill generated by the yatra in the form of tangible gains. According to Congress leader Chandy Oommen, who walked the entire distance of the yatra from Kanyakumari to Srinagar, and did so bare feet, the yatra has re-energised the cadre. “For party workers to see their leader, who they view as the future prime minister, walk with them has been an experience to cherish and something that will boost their morale,” he said.
The test for Rahul, who described the yatra as just the beginning and the first step in a series of actions, would be to take forward the gains by emerging as a viable alternative to the leadership model provided by Modi and having in place a narrative that resonates with the people. Congress leaders are aware that while Rahul’s popularity has increased, Modi continues to tower over other leaders in the popular mindscape. Also, while issues of unemployment and price rise are talking points in the popular discourse and can be decisive in state elections, at the national level, an effective counter to Modi’s template of a strong and decisive leader coupled with themes of hindutva and nationalism may still not have been found.
The successful completion of the yatra, meanwhile, has made it clear that within the Congress, Rahul is the undisputed leader. His in-house critics are now expected to lie low. Also, the group of 23, which was perceived as having reservations with Rahul’s leadership, has ceased to exist.
It has become clear that Rahul, with his crowd-pulling ability proved by the yatra, will be the face of the Congress electorally, while party president Mallikarjun Kharge is likely to deal with the business of running the party. The dynamics of this arrangement will be evident at the party’s plenary session in Raipur from February 24. The success of the yatra is expected to loom large on the session and how the party can build upon the momentum will be a major talking point in the meeting.
The party’s real test in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2024 would be to register victories in the assembly elections that will take place in 2023. The party has described the yatra as a non-electoral exercise, but there is keen interest within the party on ensuring that it can be built on electorally. Also, the yatra did pass through Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, three states that will go to polls this year. The plenary session of the party will be held in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, the fourth important state that will have assembly elections right before the general elections.
But it is still debatable if there will be electoral gains as a result of the yatra. According to a leader from a southern state, poll management is a completely different ball game compared with organising the yatra. “It is a war out there. We are up against the mighty poll machinery and limitless resources of the BJP,” he said. Party leader Alka Lamba, however, said the yatra would create an electoral impact. “I walked through six states, starting with Rajasthan. And the response that I saw on the ground was overwhelming. It has to translate into greater voter support for the party. The impact of the yatra will definitely be seen in the elections to come.”
Congress leader Pranav Jha said the response in Srinagar, despite the security restrictions, was heartwarming. “The scene at Lal Chowk when Rahul Gandhi unfurled the national flag gave one goosebumps. Ordinary Kashmiris turned up to support the yatra. It was clear that no matter who forms the government in Jammu and Kashmir, the Congress will be an important element in it,” he said.
Crippling disunity could, however, pose serious problems for the Congress in poll-bound states. The party paid dearly for the intense infighting in Madhya Pradesh as the Kamal Nath government was brought down. Rajasthan, too, faces a major crisis. To balance competing claims and ensure that the infighting does not hamper the party’s chances is a major challenge for the leadership.
On January 26, the Congress launched a two-month-long ‘Haath se Haath Jodo’ campaign to take forward the gains of the yatra politically. The effort will involve party workers reaching out to people in 6.5 lakh villages. They will carry with them a letter by Rahul and a chargesheet against the Modi government. The aim is to activate the organisation and reach out to the people, thereby sustaining the momentum created by the yatra.
The Congress has proved through the yatra that it has the capability to carry out a sustained exercise to reach out to the people across the country. It stuck to the course during the yatra and mobilised its cadre and dealt with logistical challenges. “The organisation has to now sustain that momentum. We have to be on the ground. Rahul Gandhi will not be everywhere,” said Oommen.
However, in the din of the yatra, what remains unaddressed are the many concerns about internal reforms in the party. The much-awaited organisational overhaul and the changes promised at the Udaipur Chintan Shivir remain unfulfilled.
There is also the question of opposition unity and the Congress’s place in the anti-BJP space. The party’s expectation is that Rahul should be taken more seriously as a challenger to Modi after the yatra’s success. The responsibility of getting the opposition together is that of the Congress, hence the importance of its leader gaining credibility. However, as the party’s failed attempt to get a show of opposition unity in place at the culmination in Srinagar showed, it would be extremely optimistic for the Congress to expect Rahul’s leadership to be accepted by other parties.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra has been successfully completed. But there is quite some distance left before Rahul can challenge Modi and the BJP.