Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra: Can Rahul Gandhi present an alternative to Modi's policies?

Rahul Gandhi's yatra 2.0 is bound to be dominated by poll talk

28-Rahul-Gandhi Here he goes again: Rahul Gandhi in Manipur for his Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra on January 15 | Sanjay Ahlawat

Sunita, dressed in a gorgeous Manipuri silk phanek, was part of a group of women outside the Khongjom war memorial in Thoubal, around 45 minutes out of Imphal. With a toothy, paan-stained smile, the 47-year-old said she had come to present a traditional Manipuri scarf to Rahul Gandhi. The Congress leader was running late as his flight from Delhi got delayed because of fog. Eventually, he did arrive, and began his east-to-west Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra from the war memorial on January 14. Sunita, a Meitei who came from Imphal, was happy Rahul was back in Manipur. She recalled his visit last June, when the state was torn by ethnic clashes between the Meiteis and the Kukis.

“We truly love and respect Rahul Gandhi for coming to Manipur and sharing our pain. At least he has tried to provide a healing touch,” she said. “Life is not the same anymore. There is an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. We are not even celebrating our festivals the way we used to.”

Above the Imphal valley, in the hilly district of Senapati, 60-year-old Eben Haokip walked from her village to the market square to listen to Rahul. The vegetable seller did not understand what he said, but had faith he meant well and had come with a message of peace. Among the cheers for Rahul were also slogans demanding a separate administration for the region where Kukis live.

Rahul’s yatra, a sequel to the Bharat Jodo Yatra, started with him holding meetings with both Meitei and Kuki representatives, assuring them that the Manipur issue would be taken up in Delhi.

“Manipur was chosen because it would be a reflection of our concern for what has happened in the state in the past eight months,” said Jairam Ramesh, Congress general secretary in charge of communications.

In his yatra 2.0, Rahul will cover more than 6,000km, by bus and on foot, and will end it on March 20 in Mumbai. Speaking at the launch of the yatra, he said what Manipur had gone through in recent times was symbolic of the divisive policies of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. He also spoke of the pain of losing near and dear ones, and reminded people that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not visited Manipur since the violence broke out.

The effort was to project the Modi regime as an unfeeling government and the Congress and its leader as capable of empathising with the people. With this, Rahul set the tone of the yatra, which after Manipur would head to Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Assam.

The party wants to focus on “social, political and economic injustice” that it claims people have suffered in the past ten years of the BJP rule. Part of the mix would be topics such as unemployment, price rise, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and the alleged takeover of institutions that safeguard democratic processes and people’s constitutional rights. Rahul said the Congress would, through the yatra, put on the table an alternative vision to the “divisive, unjust and authoritarian” policies of the Modi government.

The big challenge for the party, though, is to present a vision that effectively counters the BJP’s shrill hindutva narrative that has been boosted by the Ram Temple inauguration in Ayodhya.

Rather than the image-redeeming exercise that the earlier cross-country journey was, the sequel is bound to be dominated by poll talk as it comes close to the Lok Sabha elections. The Congress, however, insists it is not an electoral yatra, but a political and an ideological one. “The yatra is about the injustice that common people are facing in different ways,” said Kanhaiya Kumar, AICC in-charge of the National Students’ Union of India. “Please do not connect it with elections. We are a political party, so it is natural that we will carry out political activities. But politics is not just about elections.”

However, manifesto consultations will be part of the yatra―the Congress wants to know from different sections of society about what to put in the manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections. The first such consultation is expected to be held in Guwahati on January 23; another one is planned for Ranchi around February 6.

Also, as the yatra gets into states such as West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, the focus will be on the Congress’s dynamics with its INDIA allies, especially regarding the sharing of seats. Already, seat-sharing talks have lost the Congress Milind Deora, one of the members of team Rahul, who moved to the Shiv Sena (Shinde). The reason for the exit is believed to have been the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) holding a rally in Mumbai South, a constituency Deora covets. Uddhav’s man Arvind Sawant is the sitting MP there. The Congress leadership in both the state and at the Centre could not help Deora much as he has lost twice from the seat.

The Congress will feel the impact of the resignation in Mumbai; there is a strong Deora faction in the Mumbai Congress. Also, Deora, like his father Murli, has been a fundraiser for the Congress because of his excellent relations with industry barons.

The Janata Dal (United), a partner in the INDIA bloc, had already said that it would have been better for the Congress to plan joint alliance programmes rather than launch the yatra so close to the elections.

Moreover, the yatra has come in for some introspection within the Congress―it is felt that it is not proving to be as impactful as the first one. To begin with, there is no novelty factor of Rahul on a yatra. Also, the initial analysis is that him sitting in a customised bus, taking the elevator to the roof and addressing people from there, and on occasion getting down and walking with them, does not have the same impact as him walking non-stop with people joining in.

However, at his first news conference during the yatra, Rahul did say that he expected to walk more as the yatra entered populous states such as Assam and West Bengal.

“It was a completely different experience in the Bharat Jodo Yatra,” said a young Congress leader who walked with Rahul in Maharashtra. “The sentiment, the level of enthusiasm was something else. Here, the connection with people is more limited. You are in the bus most of the time.”

With inputs from Dnyanesh Jathar