The Congress party has hailed the Rahul Gandhi-led Kanniyakumari-to-Kashmir Bharat Jodo Yatra as a success.
More than the optics of the Nehru-Gandhi family scion Rahul traversing the nation, the Bharat Jodo Yatra was about rejuvenating the Congress rank and file. The Yatra also served as a platform for image-building of Rahul, who has gone from being a gaffe-prone speaker to one pitching his vision of India against that of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
While the Bharat Jodo Yatra may have galvanised the rank and file of the Congress and helped improve Rahul's image, but the Congress party's path to 2024 general elections remains strewn with many challenges, analysts and experts say. It's yet to be seen if the Congress can turn the apparent popular support for Yatra into electoral gains.
The year 2023 serves as a semi-final to the 2024 general elections and is slated to have eight assembly elections. Of these eight, two are in the Congress-ruled Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Notably, there are only three Congress-ruled states at the moment — Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Himachal Pradesh.
Though the Congress party has said the Bharat Jodo Yatra was not political, it has been used as a platform to pitch for the centrality of Congress in 2024.
'Congress fulcrum of any Opposition alliance'
Last week, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said that the Congress party will be the fulcrum of any Opposition alliance in the 2024 general elections.
Ramesh also said that the Congress is the only party with a national profile and any Opposition alliance without it will be irrelevant.
He said, "Any Opposition platform to defeat the BJP must be based on two realities. Reality number one, Congress must be the pivot or fulcrum of any Opposition alliance, and, without the Congress, no Opposition alliance is relevant and meaningful. Any Opposition alliance must be based on a constructive agenda not just a negative agenda of anti-BJP or anti-regime. It must be based on a constructive and positive agenda."
Real test of Congress starts now, many challenges ahead
The Congress faces the onerous task of rebuilding its moribund organisation, which is struggling to overcome a leadership crisis and regain credibility with the voters. It also has to craft a political narrative that not only counters the ruling BJP's Hindutva-driven mobilisation but also yields tangible electoral gains.
The success of the over 4,000-kilometre Bharat Jodo Yatra will be judged by the outcome of the state polls in the run-up to the 2024 national election. Should the Congress do well in these elections, the Opposition regional parties could drop their reluctance to accept the Congress as the "fulcrum" of an anti-BJP alliance in 2024.
Political commentator Sanjay Jha, who was once a spokesperson for the Congress party, said the real task of taking on the BJP begins now for the Congress and the party has a clear "tailwind".
He told PTI, "The cadres have been galvanised. (Congress president) Mallikarjun Kharge is making aggressive, combative speeches that are seemingly getting under BJP's skin."
Jha said the Congress needs to treat 2023 as a semi-final knockout and a "do or die".
Congress prospects, priorities in 2023
Not much is expected to go in favour of the Congress in the four north-eastern states where assembly elections will be held next month. The party has been steadily losing ground in these states and is unlikely to revive its electoral fortunes there.
In Mizoram, the Congress had suffered a crushing defeat in 2018 and was down to just five seats. While in Meghalaya it had lost to the NDA; it had drawn a blank in Tripura and Nagaland.
But a dismal show in the northeast can be more than offset, if the party wrests power in Karnataka, which will likely go to polls in March-April. Most political observers give Congress an edge over the BJP in Karnataka. That said, the most crucial electoral test will come toward the end of the year, when the four other bigger states hold elections.
Jha told PTI, "With Karnataka looking to swing back, Congress needs to immediately resolve the Rajasthan gridlock by making Sachin Pilot the chief minister. Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh can both be won, if the Congress stops committing hara-kiri."
Telangana is also crucial, where the Congress party runs the risk of losing being the main opposition to the BJP.
The party's electoral performance in the states of Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, where the Congress is in direct contest with BJP, is "very important for the Congress if it wants to stay relevant in 2024", said Sanjay Kumar, co-director of Lokniti at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). Taken together, these four states send 93 MPs to the 543-member Lok Sabha.
A bigger challenge, however, "would be to strengthen the party structure in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, which are big and where the Congress is no more a visible political force", Kumar said. Elsewhere, in states like Gujarat, the party structure needs to be strengthened.
The party needs to keep answering the question "what next?", Kumar told PTI.
Some challenges solved, some staring in face
There has been talk of several challenges for the party for a long time, one of which —about leadership— has been solved with Kharge's election. The other was of mass contact and connection with the people on which a beginning has been made with the Bharat Jodo Yatra. But that has to continue in different forms, not just a padyatra, said Kumar.
The Congress began its 'Haath Se Haath Jodo Abhiyaan' on January 26 as a follow-up to the yatra under which it aims to take the message of the march to each and every household. However, Congress General Secretary Jairam Ramesh himself has stated that it would be a challenge to reach out to every household as the Congress organisation is weak in some states.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra, which cut through a dozen states and two Union Territories – from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, has to some extent built a counter narrative, but it needs to be given a more "concrete shape" for the Congress to take leadership of the opposition bloc, said Manindra Nath Thakur, an associate professor of political science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
"That would be a big challenge," Thakur said.
Through its 145-day journey, the yatra has received support from a cross-section of Opposition parties such as the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the National Conference and the People's Democratic Party in Kashmir, whose leaders joined in.
There are also many prominent Opposition parties that chose to stay away. These included the Bharat Rashtra Samiti of Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao; Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal; Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party; and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, which continue to explore a non-Congress, non-BJP third front.
The optics at Monday's yatra finale, which is expected to be attended by many opposition leaders, will tell how far the Congress has come in cementing its ambition to become the "fulcrum" of a national alternative to BJP in 2024.
(With PTI inputs)