It’s more than four months that Rahul Gandhi has been on a marathon foot journey from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. The 3,570-km long Bharat Jodo Yatra or ‘unite India march’ has been much more than just a long walk. It has been a journey of interactions and conversations, of spreading the message of love and unity and of raising issues that concern the common man. The indication is that the yatra has got overwhelming response from people, enthused the Congress workers and worked to galvanise pro-Congress sentiment.
In an environment of polarising sectarian rhetoric that has become the easiest route to political power, the yatra is an audacious attempt to reimagine India’s politics. Mr Gandhi’s message of social and religious harmony and peaceful co-existence is inspiring and a notable contrast to the BJP’s divisive politics. Through his speeches and interactions, Mr Gandhi has tried to convey the message of peace and brotherhood. Through his unwavering affirmation of secular, pluralistic democracy, Mr Gandhi has tried to frame a new charter for political action that is disassociated from immediate political calculations. He has also tried to find a middle ground between status quo politics and radicalism. Over the march since September 7, Mr Gandhi has emerged as the staunchest opponent of Hindutva.
Rahul Gandhi of Bharat Jodo Yatra has done away with the soft Hindutva that has been apparent in recent years with the Congress party’s ambivalence on issues concerning minorities. He has spoken about the rights of the minorities, backward and oppressed communities. With his affirmation of multi-religion and multicultural democracy and unity in diversity, Mr Gandhi seems to have come in his own as a political leader who is mounting a challenge to the rabidly communal forces of Hindutva. By affirming his commitment to an idea of India based on peace, love and equality, Mr Gandhi has succeeded in reinstating the identification of the Congress with secular, Constitutional democracy.
But all this may not add up to his capacity to confront the politics of hate and Hindutva at this point of time. It also may not help establish him as the fulcrum of politics opposed to it, given that the network of hate and divisive politics is so strong that it is not easy to expect the immediate collapse of that edifice. Thus, while to underestimate the hold of the divisive and destructive right-wing forces will be a delusion, it would also be wrong to underrate Mr Gandhi’s attempt to reconfigure politics from a secular point of view. In his intent and resolve to fight his formidable opponent, both ideologically and politically, Mr Gandhi seems prepared for a long haul.
The aim of the yatra has been ‘to address rampant unemployment and inflation, the politics of hate and division and the overcentralisation of our political system’. Mr Gandhi’s foot march has succeeded in drawing attention of his admirers, critics, colleagues, rivals and opponents as well as common people to these issues that he has constantly raised through the yatra. Political analysts are of the view that the yatra is a big mass outreach programme of the Congress in at least three decades, which has unnerved the BJP to a great extent. Having revelled in running him down to the extent of ridiculing him over the last eight year, the makeover of the Gandhi scion is disconcerting for the BJP, as people are getting to see the real Rahul Gandhi, not the caricature created by the saffron party and featured endlessly on TV, social media and in the print medium.
What the yatra has brought to the fore is Mr Gandhi’s true self: one who is prepared to work hard, to slog it out, who is sensitive, warm, likeable, intelligent, well-read and who believes in values that the idea of India was founded on. At a time when India is divided by so much hatred and the BJP’s divisive ideological agenda, it’s not easy to create an alternative narrative of love and unity to bind India together. But in an environment of hate, bigotry and intolerance, Mr Gandhi’s yatra has reemphasised that for India’s progress, development, job creation, economic upliftment of the poor, better living standards, good education and improved healthcare system, we need to follow the path of love, unity and peaceful coexistence within the framework of the Constitution. While the remaking of Mr Gandhi has many hurdles to overcome and many battles for the Congress to fight, the shift in political narrative is evident.
Credit must be given where it is due. No matter what you think of Rahul Gandhi as a politician or his record as Congress president, it is hard to deny that his Bharat Jodo Yatra is a huge success. And the Rahul Gandhi that people have seen through the yatra is the Rahul Gandhi India can relate to. Nearly everywhere he has gone, he has attracted huge crowds. His speeches have been appreciated. He has spoken from the heart and his speeches have been devoid of any agenda. But the yatra has its origin in the arena of electoral politics, given the fact that it is organised by a political party. Therefore, it is natural to expect Mr Gandhi and his party to try much harder to put more spine into secular politics to counter the BJP’s communal agenda.
So, what should one expect next? Mr Gandhi and the Congress should build on the spirit of the yatra and keep the goodwill going to resurrect the electoral prospects of the Congress. The real electoral impact of the yatra, or lack of it, may be visible this year in the Assembly elections in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana – states that were extensively covered in the yatra. Then of course there are the 2024 general elections for which the Congress must strive hard to bring together the Opposition parties on a common platform to fight the BJP.
The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule