A battered and bruised Congress party, in a bid to rejuvenate its cadre and establish contact with the masses, inaugurated its ambitious Bharat Jodo Yatra from Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu on September 6. The march, which began on September 7, is being led by Rahul Gandhi and is expected to span five months over a 3,570 km route through 12 states and two Union Territories, all the way to Kashmir.
The padyatra will pass through Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Nilambur in Kerala; Mysore, Bellary and Raichur in Karnataka; Vikarabad in Telangana; Nanded and Jalgaon in Maharashtra, Indore in Madhya Pradesh, Kota, Dausa and Alwar in Rajasthan; Bulandshahr in UP; Delhi; Ambala and Pathankot in Punjab; Jammu; and finally, Srinagar in Kashmir.
Despite intermittent rain, a large crowd gathered along the designated route to welcome Rahul Gandhi and the padyatris on the third day of the Kerala leg of the yatra, which began on Tuesday (September 13) at around 7.15 am. By Monday evening, the yatra had clocked a distance of 100 km.
The yatra comes at a time when the Grand Old Party—mired in a leadership crisis exacerbated by a raft of high-profile desertions—is finding itself pitted against BJP’s juggernaut, helmed by PM Narendra Modi. Amid staggering inflation, growing unemployment and communal polarisation, Congress, through this campaign, will attempt to provide “an alternative to the politics of fear, bigotry and prejudice”.
Senior leader Tariq Anwar tells Outlook that Congress had, at its recent Udaipur Chintan Shivir, decided it will organise a massive programme to engage the public en masse, to expose and oppose the narratives of divisive forces “peddled by the BJP-led government and its ideological father, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)”.
Rahul Gandhi is being accompanied by 118 padyatris throughout the campaign, with state leaders and locals joining the march when it reaches their respective states. In each state, the march is moving ahead in two batches—one from 7 am to 10.30 am; the other from 3.30 pm to 6.30 pm. While the morning sessions include fewer participants, the evening sessions are seeing mass mobilisations. Every day, during the interval—11 am to 3pm—Rahul Gandhi and other leaders interact with local civil society representatives, in a bid to strengthen the party’s presence in areas where it lacks ground-level cadre, ahead of the 2024 General Elections (GE).
“This is a mass mobilisation campaign,” Congress leader Jairam Ramesh tells Outlook, adding, “it will connect Congress to the people.” He adds, “For the first time in the history of Indian politics, a party has launched such a gigantic campaign.”
On Monday, Kerala’s ruling CPI(M) tweeted a dig at the yatra, calling it a “weird strategy to battle BJP-RSS”. It had a caricature of Rahul Gandhi and questioned if the campaign was for “Bharat Jodo” or “Seat Jodo”, and read: “Strange approach to fight BJP-RSS. 18 days in Kerala, 2 days in UP.” Congress responded to the tweet vehemently, branding the CPI(M) as BJP’s proxy in the southern state.
The Congress has been losing its electoral sheen for a longer time than people are likely to admit. If 1984 is considered an aberration, 1991, 2004 and 2009 were elections when it rode a complex coalition arithmetic to power. But 2014 was a watershed, as its principal opposition, the BJP, campaigned on a plank to wipe out the Congress, and has continued to harp on that slogan ever since. Concurrently, the party has lost most elections since then, both at the Centre and in the states, and is currently ruling in just two—Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
Moreover, of late, it has been witnessing an escalation in internal dissent. Often, senior leaders, while leaving the party, have cited Rahul Gandhi’s leadership style as the reason for their chagrin. On August 26, in his five-page resignation letter, Ghulam Nabi Azad alleged that the party organisation is in a shambles, mainly because a “new coterie of inexperienced sycophants had started running the party affairs at 24, Akbar Road”. A source close to Rahul Gandhi tells Outlook, “Stuck in an unprecedented stalemate, the party has become hollow.” Only time can tell if the yatra will fetch it any electoral dividends at the 2024 GE, or at upcoming assembly polls, he adds.
However, Congress has been maintaining that the focus of the padyatra is not immediate electoral gains. AICC secretary Christopher Tilak tells Outlook, “Through this yatra, we don’t want to talk about upcoming elections, but the upcoming generations, and how the country’s future is at stake.”
The whole campaign is two-pronged in nature. The yatra, after crossing each state, will be followed by a string of state-level campaigns. It is expected to act as a catalyst for other campaigns that will be run by the leadership in their respective states, a Congress leader tells Outlook. One such campaign is the Samvidhan Bachao Yatra (Save the Constitution March), wherein party workers will march up to 75 km in their respective states to spread awareness about “BJP’s onslaught on constitutional values”.
K. Raju, Congress’ national coordinator for SCs, STs, OBCs and minorities, tells Outlook that besides amplifying the message of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Samvidhan Bachao Yatra will aim to mobilise marginalised sections of the society. “We also hope to spread awareness about how the BJP is demolishing the country’s Constitution and institutions,” says Raju. “We will also conduct door-to-door campaigns to raise awareness about core issues like the caste census and reservations.” These campaigns, he adds, will start after the Bharat Jodo Yatra leaves a state and enters the next.
A Tightrope Walk
Observers are sceptical about the way campaign has been planned. They feel Congress is trying to tap the groups that are disgruntled with the status quo, rather than ones who are complicit with the BJP rule. Analysts like Manindra Thakur, who teaches at JNU, believe it’s a negative strategy and won’t reap it any benefits. “Congress can’t work with only a negative plan for long,” he says. “Rather than responding to BJP’s barbs, it should have focused on creating a new agenda to which the BJP would have been forced to respond,” he says, adding, “Rather than speak about secularism, communalism or constitutionalism, for instance, they should offer an alternative vision of what it has in store for the country.” He adds, “Maybe this will dawn upon the party during the yatra itself.”
Former DU professor of political science Neera Chandhoke expresses similar concerns. “There’s a need to tell people not only where the Congress comes from,” Chandhoke writes, “but what it has in store... We need a vision statement.”
However, ideological reconstruction is not the Congress’s only challenge. The road ahead is fraught with more tangible hurdles. With Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh slated to hold assembly polls this year, any loss for the party is likely to be projected as the failure of the yatra. “If we lose either state, which is a possibility,” says a Congress insider, “BJP will brand the yatra a failure.” He adds, “We need to tread carefully, or Congress might be thrown into the dustbin of history.”
(This appeared in the print edition as "Reviving Congress by Uniting India")