As Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra ends after five months, everyone’s wondering what difference it will make to the Congress party’s dwindling political fortunes.
It’s a question not very difficult to answer by now: the Yatra has helped the Congress party consolidate its core voters, which is important because the party risked losing even its base. At the same time, the Yatra has failed to convert any swing voters from BJP to Congress. Even the Congress party’s supporters who appreciate the Yatra admit it’s not enough for the party to overturn its electoral decline.
In other words, it is a case of the glass half full, half empty. Here are five things Rahul Gandhi got right with this Yatra and five things he got wrong.
1) Rebuilding image
Before the 2019 general elections, Rahul Gandhi said in an interview that he had attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strongest asset, his image, with an anti-corruption ‘Rafale’ campaign. That bombed at the hustings. After losing the election badly, Rahul Gandhi resigned as party president and went into a prolonged sulk, disappearing from the public eye for long periods.
With the Bharat Jodo Yatra, he has finally focused not on attacking his opponent but on building his image, trying to give voters a reason to vote for him and not against Modi. This is a step in the right direction, though he has many more Yatras to walk through to reach his destination.
2) Consistency and commitment
With the Bharat Jodo Yatra, people saw Rahul Gandhi work hard and consistently for at least five months. Most things the Congress party does are a one-day affair. A five-month campaign shows the party is willing to be consistent about something, and consistency builds trust.
Until now, it was often difficult to understand what Rahul Gandhi was up to. He would disappear into Europe for a vacation on the eve of important state elections, only to return a few days before polling to wave in rallies. Voters like to see politicians work hard. The only way to shed the ‘entitled dynast’ tag is to work hard 24/7 x 365.
Rahul Gandhi’s supporters are not tired of telling us that he’s been walking 20 kilometres a day, starting at 6am. But the same supporters used to defend his frequent vacations as a “work-life balance”. Thankfully, they didn’t ask him to fly to London in the middle of the Bharat Jodo Yatra for “work-life balance”.
3) A mass movement, finally
Given that the Congress party has been in terminal decline, it has been obvious for a while that it needs a mass movement to revive itself. While the Indian National Congress was born out of the mother of all mass movements, the Indian freedom struggle, it has been so used to being in power that it forgot the art of mass movements.
Those who have taken away Congress votes over the years have all risen out of mass movements, most notably the BJP’s Ram Mandir movement.
After the 2014 debacle, when it was clear that the Congress party had lost not just an election but a generation, the party should have taken to mass politics. It’s taken Rahul Gandhi about eight years to realise this.
4) Bid to reclaim nationalism
Since the beginning of the Modi campaign in 2013, it has been incredible to watch how the Bhartiya Janata Party has owned the narrative of nationalism. Almost nothing succeeds without nationalism.
The BJP and Hindutva politics have used Indian nationalism to become mainstream over the years. The Aam Aadmi Party came out of the Lokpal movement, which used the Indian flag in the style of the Arab Spring protests.
The Indian National Congress, the party of the freedom movement, let go of its nationalist credentials. As Rahul Gandhi hoists the Indian flag in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, it serves as a reminder of how much the Indian flag and its colours (also the Congress party’s colours) have dominated the visuals of the Yatra.
At long last, the Congress has at least tried to reclaim nationalism. At the very least, this helps blunt the attacks that the Congress is “anti-national”.
5) Focused on national over state politics
There was much criticism that the Bharat Jodo Yatra did not go to Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh before their state elections in December. In fact, the obsession with state elections has come in the way of the Congress party leadership’s inability put up a coherent national campaign.
The route through Delhi does not go through the states. The Indian freedom movement was a pan-India movement that gave birth to the Indian National Congress. The BJP’s Ram Mandir movement was a national movement, and the party started winning state elections after this movement.
As it happens, the Congress won Himachal Pradesh without the Yatra even going there. The Gandhis should leave state elections to state leaders and focus on national politics.
There were also mistakes. The Yatra did not have a concrete theme, no matter how many times they repeated their four purposes. They did not use the Yatra to strengthen the party organisation. Rahul Gandhi’s oratory remains a mess. The only statements that stand out are gaffes. The Yatra travelled mostly through highways, whereas it could have had more impact if it was travelling through dense towns and villages. And Rahul Gandhi’s shabby beard could do with a trim.
But it’s a good start nonetheless. Will Rahul Gandhi now take a long break or start converting his physical fitness into electoral fitness?