It was snowing heavily on the morning of January 30 in Srinagar, the capital of India’s Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), when former J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti showered praises on Rahul Gandhi, who had just completed his four-month-long march across the length of India.
“Today, the nation can see a ray of hope in Rahul Gandhi,” said Mufti, who heads the Kashmir valley-based People’s Democratic Party (PDP), while addressing a gathering at the conclusion of the Gandhi-led march, known as the Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India rally). Another former Chief Minister of J&K, Omar Abdullah of the PDP’s arch-rival, the National Conference, was also present. He suggested it was time Gandhi undertook an east-west rally covering the breadth of the country.
Rahul Gandhi, the face of India’s main opposition party, the Congress, walked 4,000 kilometers over 136 days, braving extreme heat, rain, and freezing cold, crossing 12 states and two Union Territories. It is the biggest political program the Congress party has undertaken since losing power to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014.
There have been other yatras before. In 1990, for instance, the BJP’s then president Lal Krishna Advani took out the Ram rath yatra in a car decorated as a chariot to “awaken and unite” Hindus, who make up four-fifths of the country’s population.
Gandhi’s rally triggered hundreds of media reports on issues ranging from his message on love, trends of public participation, logistics, shows of organizational strength, and the participation of leaders of other opposition parties and important personalities, to his beard, T-shirts, and whether or not he was using sunscreen lotion.
As the program came to its conclusion, journalists and political pundits were busy finding an answer to the big question: what did it achieve, especially in terms of The Congress’ electoral prospects in the parliamentary election due next year?
The Congress has described the rally as “a movement to unite the voices of the people of India, against injustice.” Its leaders have denied that the program is aimed at projecting the Nehru-Gandhi family scion as a prime ministerial candidate.
“The yatra was not for winning elections but against hate,” Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, the first non-Gandhi president of the party in 24 years, said at the concluding event. “BJP people are spreading hate in the country. Rahul Gandhi has proven that he can unite the country from Kanyakumari to Kashmir on issues such as unemployment and inflation.”
Gandhi himself has stressed the part of rediscovering India – the true essence of India that he alleges the BJP and its ideological-organizational parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are destroying. On January 29, a day before the concluding event, Gandhi wrote on Instagram, “I feel great pride that we embarked on this momentous journey of #BharatJodoYatra to rediscover India’s true strength – Unity.”
Journalist Deepanshu Mohan, however, described the program as “explicitly packaged for ‘Rahul to discover India’ and ‘India to (re)discover Rahul’.” He opined that it was “difficult to ascertain the real meaning and consequential purpose of a journey that made an entitled being, with no official role or position in a party” to embark on such a journey “built with lots of resources and public relations effort.”
The 52-year-old Gandhi, whose father, grandmother, and great-grandfather served as prime ministers, and whose mother chaired India’s Congress-led ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, is perceived to suffer from an image problem: the image of a non-serious politician, or rather a reluctant politician.
The BJP and other Hindu nationalist organizations have also created, through concerted effort, the image of Gandhi as a “child” whose only claim to the top seat is dynastic virtue. Leaders and supporters of the BJP have nicknamed him Pappu, a boy who always fails in exams – one to make fun of, a laughing stock. Even Congress dissenters looking to hobnob with or join the BJP often targeted him by branding him “childish” and “non-serious.”
With Gandhi’s rally now at an end, there are three main questions to which the political observers are trying to find answers: what has Gandhi achieved, what did his party achieve, and how does it benefit the prospect of the opposition forces ahead of next year’s national general elections. The last question is important, as the Congress, despite its decline, is still perceived to be the glue that can keep opposition forces together.
The first question is important as well. There is the perception that Modi’s unmatched stature in the country’s political sphere is the main reason behind the BJP’s unprecedented success. No opposition face can match Modi, political analysts have often pointed out.
Faces have been important in Indian politics. It took a Jayaprakash Narayan (who never contested elections himself) to topple Indira Gandhi’s rule in 1977, a V.P. Singh to topple Rajiv Gandhi’s in 1989, and an Atal Bihari Vajpayee to bring the BJP to power in 1998. Even in 2004, when the Congress removed Vajpayee’s government, the party had Sonia Gandhi as its face.
Has Rahul Gandhi managed to reshape his public image? A Press Trust of India report that several leading Indian news outlets carried was headlined: “Pappufication’ may be over, beard symbolizes image makeover: Experts on Rahul Gandhi.”
But what did the Congress achieve, except for being able to show people that they are still capable of carrying out programs of such scale – perhaps, as the only opposition party in India? The rally was not attended by leaders of opposition parties that have a competing interest with the Congress – the Trinamool Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party, and the Bharat Rashtra Samithi, for example. While several ground reports pointed out that the rally uplifted the morale of Congress workers in different states that it passed through, there has been no indication of the party getting any immediate relief from infighting in state units. This is something that supporters of India’s ruling dispensation are asking: has Gandhi even managed to unite his own party?
While all these issues will continue to be debated, to what extent the rally may help shape the opposition alliance will depend largely on how the party fares in the state assembly elections due this year – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Karnataka, and Rajasthan, the states the Yatra passed through, and Chhattisgarh, a Congress-ruled state that the rally bypassed.