In a TV debate in 2015, Gardiner Harris, the former New York Times correspondent in South Asia, quipped: “The Congress Party is going to die if Congress continues to promote Rahul as the man who is going to lead it because he is going to lead it to its death. I have heard he is a good man, a dog lover but he is not a politician.” The audience squealed with laughter.
Has the Bharat Jodo Yatra, flagged off on September 7, from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, spanning 3,570 km over 150 days, (entered Madhya Pradesh having completed the halfway mark of 75 days) led to Rahul Gandhi’s resurrection? One poll survey conducted by C-Voter claims that Rahul’s popularity ratings have shot up in Kerala (he is an MP from Wayanad constituency in Kerala) from 30.6% to 36.8%, from 16.8% to 19.4% in Tamil Nadu, and from 29.8% to 34% in Karnataka, a state which goes to assembly poll in 2023.
Litmus test for Congress is the Hindi heartland
Critics, however, point out that a small increase in Rahul’s popularity in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where the BJP is electorally weak, is surely not politically significant. The litmus test for Rahul’s resurrection will be the Hindi heartland states, where Congress is not in power, except Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, most of which the yatra doesn’t cover.
Yogendra Yadav, who is accompanying Rahul in his yatra, claims that the country is witnessing a new Rahul Gandhi, yet is cautious enough to say, “It is too early to talk about the rebirth of the Congress, but the embryo of a fundamental change is unmistakable.” (see page 8).
Admittedly, the yatra has forced Rahul to spend all his time in India, concentrating on politics, energising the Congress cadres, and most important connecting with the masses. It has created a buzz with slogans such as Mile Kadam, jude vatan (the nation unites when feet meet) and Mehngai se nata todo, mil kar Bharat jodo (break away from price rise, together unite India), Berojgari ka jaal todo, Bharat jodo (Break out of the web of unemployment, unite India). It has attracted a fan following even among Bollywood celebrities such as Pooja Bhatt, Sushant Singh, Amol Palekar and others. The yatra has highlighted key issues such as scarcity of jobs among youth, record high inflation, the dilemma of beleaguered farmers, and the angst of the marginalised sections of society.
The crucial Gujarat campaign
The media took serious notice of the yatra when during his twoday break, Rahul Gandhi, with his hands around the shoulders of environmentalist and activist Medha Patkar, briefly campaigned in Gujarat. While Rahul, with Patkar beside him, was highlighting the significance of the human rights of the tribals and other environmental issues, the Prime Minister was compelled to respond, when he attacked Patkar as an urban Naxal, an activist, who stalled the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam for 40 years, as a result increasing thirst among Gujaratis.
Rahul’s speech in Mahuva, in Surat district, in Gujarat, in which he spoke about how his grandmother Indira Gandhi taught him that the Adivasis were the first malik (owners) of the country whereas the BJP calls them Vanvasi (those who live in the forests), was rather impressive and would have found some resonance among tribal voters.
The big blunder of avoiding battleground states
The brief incursion in Gujarat during the campaign and the resultant buzz must have now convinced Congress leaders that the big blunder while planning the yatra was keeping away from the battleground states of Gujarat and Himachal. Ideally, the yatra should have been planned from Dwarka in Western Gujarat to the tip of the North-Eastern states. The entire Hindi heartland states and West Bengal, which link Gujarat to the North-East is the weakest link of the Congress party.
Following the media criticism of the route planned by the Yatra, there is speculation among Congressmen that in 2023, a similar yatra is being planned from Gujarat in the West to West Bengal in the East. If the Congress party can keep up building the pressure on the BJP Government from the ground, from the grassroots, until 2024, by launching a series of yatras, then it is quite likely that the yatras might turn into the Marathon March, which might prove to be the game-changer and accelerate the much-needed Rahul resurrection.