Can a 136-day walk loosen Modi’s stranglehold on Indian politics?
A 136-day-long journey on foot traversing the length of the country seems to have shot India’s grand old Congress party back into political prominence – as it looks to shrug off a slew of electoral defeats and pose a challenge to Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Led by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress’ Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) covered 4,000km (2,500 miles) across 12 states and two federal territories over four months through biting cold and torrential rain and saw hundreds of ordinary citizens join him on the way.
The states included Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh, and the federal territories of Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir.
The march began on 7 September at the country’s southernmost tip of Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu and ended in Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir on 30 January.
Addressing a crowd of supporters in Srinagar amid heavy snowfall, Mr Gandhi said: “I have not done this for myself or for the Congress but for people of the country. Our aim is to stand against the ideology that wants to destroy the foundation of this country.”
From the plain white T-shirt that he wore throughout the march, to not wearing a jacket in the biting cold of northern India, delivering speeches in the rain, camping in tents, and sporting a salt-and-pepper beard – the march was laden with symbolism. Mr Gandhi, mocked by the BJP’s social media cell for years as pappu or an unintelligent boy, seemed determined to shrug off his image as a non-serious politician.
It is no wonder, given how deep his – sometimes tragic – family history is intertwined with India’s politics. Mr Gandhi is the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and a scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family – often referred to as India’s first political family. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was India’s first woman prime minister and the second-longest serving – after her own father. She was assasinated in 1984. Rajiv Gandhi – Rahul’s father – would succeed his mother and serve as prime minister until 1989. He too would be assassinated in 1991. Rajiv’s widow, Rahul’s mother, Sonia would become the longest-serving president the Congress party has had.
However, after governing India for most of the seven decades since its independence, Congress is now only in power in three of the country’s 28 states.
A month after the march started, the Congress party elected its first non-Gandhi president in 24 years, Mallikarjun Kharge, in a bid to shed its dynastic image. Although there is no doubt the Nehru-Gandhi family has stranglehold over the party’s organisation and functions. This has been at the centre of BJP attacks on Congress since it first came to power in 2014. The BJP has time and again sought to show that the stagnation of this dynasty is the reason it was ultimately routed from power after decades of rule.
The BJP’s narrative – focused on projecting Mr Gandhi as a shehzaada (prince) who is not a serious politician and has secured a place at the helm of the Congress due to his family name – has only added to the party’s sliding fortunes in recent years. This relative fall has given Mr Gandhi the space to create a David vs Goliath narrative around his walk, despite his background.
Reviving India’s Congress party: Rahul Gandhi ends months-long march in Kashmir
Mr Gandhi claims that “love” from the Indian people has kept him warm during his long march. He was often joined by gushing school children and the elderly as he drank tea or ate lunch at roadside shops.
According to the party’s national spokesperson Gourav Vallabh, the unity march has been largely successful because the message of social harmony has reached the people.
“The objective of this yatra was two-fold,” he tells The Independent. “Under the Modi government hate on the lines of religion, caste and even sub-castes has grown exponentially creating a big dent on the social fabric of our country.
“The first objective was to take India back to the time where all religions were respected and brotherhood was the norm. We have achieved this to a large extent,” he says.
The second objective, he says, was to start a discussion on India’s ailing economy. “We talk of renaming gardens and stadiums but the fact that the quality of life of the average Indian is not improving is not a point of discussion.”
India under Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP government has seen a spike in hate crimes and persecution of religious minorities.
Last April, for the third year in a row, the United States Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF) recommended the US State Department designate India a “country of particular concern” for “engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”.
Religious and social polarisation has been accompanied by growing economic inequality, with rising inflation and unemployment.
“Our second objective was to bring these economic issues to the discussion table so policies can be made to remedy them,” Mr Vallabh says.
Through the march Mr Gandhi delivered a series of speeches highlighting the growing economic inequality in India, the rising religious polarisation, and the threat posed by China in a bid to directly challenge the Modi government.
Though the march was designed to highlight a difficult time for the country, it also comes at a low point for the Congress party itself, with India’s “grand old party” now struggling to stay afloat.
Barring a win in Himachal Pradesh last year, the party has suffered a slew of election defeats in successive state polls, as well as being battered in the 2014 and 2019 general elections. India goes to the polls again in 2024.
The party is seen as needing a major overhaul if it is to have any chance of winning national elections, but has been grappling with factionalism and seen a series of desertions in recent months.
While the long march, according to the party, was aimed at social harmony and raising awareness about economic crises, it was also very much about presenting a rebranded Mr Gandhi and the party.
Analysts say that with this long march, Mr Gandhi has at least managed to halt the slide in his popularity.
Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and visiting assistant professor at Ashoka University, says: “Lot of people considered Rahul Gandhi as a non-serious politician, and that’s where the yatra has broken that image to an extent.
“It may not have catapulted Rahul Gandhi or his party but it has definitely arrested their unpopularity,” he says.
The Congress, on its part, says the images of Mr Gandhi walking across the country meeting local communities and stakeholders has rattled the BJP.
“A person like Rahul Gandhi without having any issues with hot summer or chilling winter or heavy rainfall walking across the country and lakhs of people irrespective of caste, colour, religion and ideologies joining this yatra for social harmony – [this] has never been seen before,” says Mr Vallabh.
“When the march was in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the BJP spoke about his shoes. In Karnataka they started talking about his T-shirt and later it was about what he is eating in Telangana and Andhra [Pradesh] and finally in north India the BJP started speculating about why he is not feeling cold.
“There were consistent and personal attacks on Rahul Gandhi which proves our success and that the BJP is in high degree of frustration,” he says.
The speech through heavy snowfall on 30 January was not Gandhi’s only symbolic move to show that he is ready to pose a challenge to Mr Modi and the BJP.
Sumeet Mhaskar, professor at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, OP Jindal Global University, says that the march succeeded in rebranding Mr Gandhi’s image.
“A turning point was when it moved north – in really cold weather – and conversations grew around Mr Gandhi wearing only a T-shirt,” he says.
“The march has successfully addressed the twin criticism of how he (Gandhi) is politically immature as well as the question of him not connecting with people on the ground. On both fronts Gandhi has managed to rebrand himself.”
The Congress says it is “natural” that the march, though initially claimed to be “non-political”, will pay electoral dividends.
“Though we did not start with that mindset, we are expecting electoral benefits,” says Mr Vallabh.
Analysts say that while the march may have been a success, it cannot turn around Congress’s election fortunes on its own.
Mr Verma says this depends on whether the party can “continue to sustain the momentum”.
“The party needs to move from abstract ideological articulation to a more nuanced ideological position that can be conveyed to the masses. It needs to continue working on the organisation and most importantly win state elections especially in states going to polls from now till 2024.
“If they don’t win these elections there will be not much change to the party’s ability to mount a challenge to the BJP in 2024.”
Mr Mhaskar says that while it is an “important message that Gandhi is offering against politics of hate, inflation, and government bias to corporates, it needs to expand on what this would actually offer”.
“In addition, it also depends on how they align themselves with smaller non-BJP parties, build alliances, and make smart candidate choices.”
“In that sense it shows a limitation that the Congress could have reached out to smaller groups or political parties a little earlier which only happened later in the yatra,” he says, referring to Gandhi’s meeting with regional leaders in different non-BJP states along the route.
The Congress claims that it successfully reached out to regional players. “We have received wholehearted support of more than 90 per cent of like-minded parties,” says Mr Vallabh.
“The remaining 10 per cent we are very hopeful – as we move towards 2024 – will join hands and we will fight together against BJP’s divide and rule, polarise and rule, and distract and rule policies.”
Shruti Kapila, professor, faculty of history and co-director, Global Humanities Initiative at the University of Cambridge, says the march was a “tremendous event in modern Indian politics”.
“The main upshot is that now there is an open debate on different visions on what India might be and where it might go and how it might get there.
“In the last 10 years you could say PM Modi dominated with the cult of his personality the political discourse as well as what India is, and I think that now the narrative has become pluralised and contested,” she says.
Addressing a press conference after the march ended, BJP said it was “politically motivated” and included “hatemongers” as participants who wanted to divide India. The Independent reached out to the BJP for further comment but did not receive a response.
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