Marches have a long history in India. As a potent rallying tool, marches were made popular during India’s historic freedom movement. Tried and tested, the yatra, an Indian term for march, remains relevant in the sub-continent. The latest rider on this inclusive bandwagon is Rahul Gandhi, the de facto head of the Congress, India’s principal opposition party.
The Downright Desperate Congress
Desperate to revive sagging fortunes, the desolate Congress has been on its strenuous Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) since 7 September 2022. Flagged off from India’s southernmost point Kanyakumari, the march is expected to reach its northernmost Kashmir region by end January 2023.
By then, the march would have completed 150 days and covered 3,570 kilometres across 12 Indian states and two union territories. Will this walking help Mr Gandhi and his downright desperate Congress party walk away with the 2024 general elections? https://www.bharatjodoyatra.in/
Political Blatancy Not Rare
Blown off by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 general elections, the Congress was slammed down to a disgraceful score of 44 seats against its earlier tally of 206. Since then, the Congress has been losing most major electoral contests and many key people to the incumbent BJP, the party India’s prime minister Narendra Modi belongs to. Political instability has become rare now in India, political blatancy is not.
By default, Mr Gandhi, the 52-year-old Nehru-Gandhi scion, is responsible for encouraging much of this blatancy. Mr Gandhi is usually accused by the BJP of being a part-time politician. Quite often, Mr Gandhi takes off to relax in exotic global destinations. He loves his rifle-shooting and harpooning.
Failed to Build a Counterweight
Essentially, the Gandhis – Mr Gandhi, his mother and his sister – have failed to empower the Congress to build a strong credible opposition, tough enough to act as counterweight to Mr Modi and his party. https://thebridge.in/news/did-you-know-rahul-gandhinational-shooting-champion-black-belt-aikido/?infinitescroll=1
Much like his poll forays, will this nationwide march too boomerang on the harpoon-loving Mr Gandhi? Will the march end up projecting Mr Gandhi as power-hungry, as branded by sections of the BJP-sympathetic media? Congressmen never tire of needling Mr Modi and their taunts are showing Mr Gandhi in poor light.
Great Publicity Value
Not to be outdone, Mr Modi’s men are proving they are a step ahead of Mr Gandhi and his Congress party, their sworn rivals. Mr Modi’s men lose no opportunity to cast aspersions on the march and the marchers. However, every time Mr Modi’s men resort to cheap aspersions, the Congress gains in four ways.
One, their aspersions show the march is being noticed, recognised and thus willy-nilly legitimised. Two, they tell the electorate the march is too significant to ignore. Three, they prod prospective voters to sit up and see what is happening to the march. Four, they are helping the prospective voters connect with the Congress. These four factors are offering great publicity value for Mr Gandhi and his party.
A Perplexing Contrast
Yet, the march is not capitalising on these positive vibes. While campaigns for the state assembly elections were feverishly progressing in Himachal Pradesh, Mr Gandhi and his key partymen were busy with the march. The best Mr Gandhi could do for the Congress campaign in hotly-contested Gujarat, the home state of Mr Modi, was to take a casual break from the march on 22 November, only to wax eloquent on his march.
Such a laid-back approach to polls in a key state surprised many politicos in a sharp eye-widening contrast to Mr Modi and his hungry approach to polls. Many observers and prospective voters felt it was perplexing. https://www.deccanherald.com/national/nationalpolitics/after-skipping-himachal-pradesh-election-campaignsrahul-gandhi-to-campaign-in-gujarat-1162364.html
No Signs of Breaking Away
Quite natural, average Indian voters are asking loaded questions today. How does Mr Gandhi, who does not view elections as top priority, hope to change India for the better? How does he propose to defeat Mr Modi, who does not tire of back-to-back rallies in poll-bound Indian states?
Sure, the cumulative damage inflicted on the Congress by Mr Gandhi is not helping matters. The Gandhis okayed the idea of a presidential election for the party and now there is a non-Gandhi at the helm. Mallikarjun Kharge, a Dalit Congressman from the Indian state of Karnataka, is in the president’s chair. Where are the signs of Mr Kharge breaking away from the party’s sycophantic past? Mr Gandhi continues till date as if he heads the Congress. In fact, Mr Gandhi is spearheading the ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mallikarjun_Kharge#:~:text=Mapanna%20Mallikarjun%20Kharge%20(born%2021,the%20party%20after%2024%20years.
Fighting for his Own Survival
This duplicitous behaviour proves elections for choosing the party president was a travesty of internal democracy. Mr Gandhi’s march and his hogging the limelight confirm this notion. The question now is this: where is the march heading to? What does it want to achieve in the end?
As weightier questions like these remain unanswered, the march has had a limited success. Hours of walking have stripped Mr Gandhi of his forced pappu (an Indian colloquialism for fool) epithet. Effective media management and professional public relations have succeded to an extent in elevating Mr Gandhi to the status of a fighter. However, not every Indian agrees with this. Most Indians continue to feel Mr Gandhi is merely fighting for his own survival.
Glimmer of Hope not Enough
Nevertheless, a glimmer of hope can be seen in the eyes of many Congress party enthusiasts. In the complex Indian democracy, riven by caste and religious divisions, riddled with fake news and false propaganda, a glimmer of hope is not enough. Converting the glimmer into a glowing poll prospect and translating the prospect into electoral wins decide political survival.
Thus, Indian political observers feel Mr Gandhi is not showing any major signs of rejuvenation, much like what Lal Kishen Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra (Chariot March) did for the BJP in September-October 1990. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ram_Rath_Yatra#:~:text=Advani%2C%20then%20the%20president%20of,India%20against%20the%20reservation%20bill
Betraying Political Naivete
Plus, Mr Gandhi aired his views on Veer Savarkar, a Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) icon, too openly. He had no reservations on walking with activist Medha Patkar, who is projected as anti-Gujarat for her ‘Save Narmada’ movement for rehabilitating the Narmada Dam-displaced. These actions show Mr Gandhi is yet to graduate into a consummate politician in the mould of Mr Modi.
As instances such as these betray Mr Gandhi’s naivete as a politician, the Indian prime ministerial throne, analysts feel, will remain inaccessible to him for long. Sure, though the march might have tanned his skin, his politics is yet to acquire hues of suavity.
Dissatisfaction Continues to Brew
The way the Congress renegades are rewarded by Mr Modi’s party, with ministerial and spokesperson positions, stirs subtle protests within the Congress. For instance, a disillusioned Sashi Tharoor, the Congressman who lost the party presidential poll recently, is organising his own march for congressmen in his home state Kerala in Southern India.
This underscores an important fact. Dissatisfaction with Mr Gandhi continues to brew underneath. Expecting more desertions and more inner-party protests tomorrow will not be unrealistic in the current context. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-andnation/shashi-tharoors-yatra-stirs-congs-keralapot/articleshow/95696871.cms
Personal Interests vs Party Objectives
Mr Tharoor’s defiance is a clear sign of personal interests of partymen trouncing party objectives. Consider, Mr Tharoor may want to dry-clean his past. There is thus every chance of him jumping ship and hopping over to Mr Modi’s party. Quite a few Congressmen have done so in the recent past. Mr Tharoor may yet do this, signaling a major setback for the Congress in Kerala.
Even as more rumblings of discontent could be heard in many state units of the Congress, a nonchalant Rahul Gandhi is soldiering on, with his marching passion as his primary fuel. He has completed walking for 91 days and has covered 39 districts in 8 states, adding up to a little over 2,600 kilometres. He is yet to cover 966 kilometres before he completes the aggregate 3,570 kilometres to reach Srinagar in Kashmir by the symbolic date of 26 January 2023, India’s Republic Day. https://www.bharatjodoyatra.in/
Intertwined with India’s Fate
Given his passion and appetite for walking, despite blistering feet, he may well complete the march without a whimper. But, can he unite India by bringing its numerically-large disparate forces together and dislodge Mr Modi and his party? This is a million-mile question. Particularly because Mr Gandhi is up against a powerful political animal, a potent vote-catching machine and a nifty dividing force.
The next general elections are less than 20 months away, probably in June 2024. Thus, Mr Gandhi’s march is important, both for him and Indian politics. Mr Gandhi will be closely watched and his ability to provide a meaningful opposition will be under severe test in the coming days. Thus, what Mr Gandhi can achieve through his march is intertwined with the fate of India’s multi-party democracy, multi-religious society and multi-ethnic makeup.
Protagonists of Mr Modi say he is among the most powerful leaders in modern India’s history. But, the fact remains he is also viewed as the most divisive and most partisan prime minister with pronounced preferences for the Hindu majority at the cost of social and religious minorities, Muslims and Dalits included. Nevertheless, Mr Modi’s hold on Indian voters is crab-like and he is sure to continue as India’s preferred prime minister for long.
Full marks to Mr Gandhi for making the right noises over Mr Modi’s penchant for tightening his grip around key institutions – the courts, the central bank, the poll bodies and major law-enforcement agencies. However, Mr Gandhi is yet to leverage the opportunity the march offers him to educate average Indian voters on the primacy of institutions, parliament included. Unless Mr Gandhi does this, his Unite India Yatra will be a march to nowhere.