NEW DELHI: For a man who inarguably carries a heavy political baggage on his shoulders, Rahul Gandhi has played many roles in his 18 years of politics. He has been a Vice-President and President of the Congress and Member of Parliament (MP) from two states. Now he has embarked on a marathon Bharat Jodo Yatra with over 100 fellow Congress travellers.
The yatra — the largest mass outreach programme of its kind by the Congress in recent times — comes at a time when the party faces a slew of questions that need urgent, difficult answers— answers that may decide its future over the next few years, especially in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
In a media interaction at the outset, Rahul Gandhi was at pains to make it clear that he was “not leading” the padyatra. He also refused to answer whether he will be a candidate in the Congress’ presidential election, nominations for which start later this month.
“You like to focus on me and that’s a different issue. I’m not leading this padyatra. I’m participating in this padyatra,” Gandhi told reporters. He, however, said that he has “very clearly decided” what he is going to do. This begs several questions.
First, if the Congress is not projecting him as its unchallenged leader, should it not be spending its depleted resources on finding a new party chief, now that the organisational election schedule has been announced? Otherwise, as party leader remarked privately, it’ll be a “branding exercise” for an “expired brand”.
On the other hand, if this is indeed Rahul’s ‘re-launch’, then the Congress should spell it out, considering many critics, including the party’s dissident G-23 group, have pointed out the need for a strong and visible leadership.
Gandhi, however, said that for him, this will be as much a “personal journey” as a political one. “Hopefully I will get some understanding about myself and some understanding about this beautiful country from this yatra. And I think two-three-four months later, I will be a little wiser.”
The most asked question — in both party circles and outside — is whether the yatra will cause incremental gains for the Congress in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Will this long march cause a dent in Narendra Modi and the BJP’s armour?
The yatra plans to cover 60 Lok Sabha constituencies. While the response is expected to be great in the Southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala (24 of its 53 MPs in Lok Sabha presently are from these three states), the party’s real test will start as it moves northwards.
It is in the North Indian states that the party needs to win back its electorate. While the yatra will spend a considerable number of days in Madhya Pradesh, Punjab (where it is the principal opposition), and Rajasthan (where it is in power), it will spend very little time in states like Uttar Pradesh where it is a marginal force.
It will also be giving states like Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh — where elections are slated for later this year — a miss. While critics say this is a bad strategy, the strategists who chalked out the exercise say that the party is trying to consolidate its existing voter base. It remains to be seen who will emerge wiser after 150 days.