Congress MP Rahul Gandhi speaks in the Lok Sabha at the Motion of Thanks on the President's address during the Budget Session of Parliament, in New Delhi on Tuesday. Image Credit: ANI

In India, Rahul Gandhi seems to have finally come of political age as he finished his marathon Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March) from Kanyakumari to Kashmir.

Along the nearly 4,000 kilometres long walk, Gandhi struck most unbiased crowds, party workers and extremely unsympathetic journalists as a decent, thoughtful and compassionate man — rare for a 24/7 politician.

So while Gandhi certainly had a RAGA image reboot, even Rahul 2.0 hasn’t quite got his politics right. Political yatras in India have been traditionally freighted with a lot of meaning as the optics showcase a man on a journey moving towards more spirituality.

Gandhi has, at various times, described himself as a “sanyasi” and a sort of “love guru”. He repeatedly said during the yatra that he is trying to provide love and compassion when the others are selling hate.

Broad as the message was, India is still puzzled as to what exactly Gandhi represents and what his governance message is. Gandhi has been astute about the pandemic, issuing many early warnings that were mocked by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Gandhi has been prescient about cronyism growing apace in India.

OPN RAHUL Bharat Jodo Yatra
South India: An elderly woman greets Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during the party's Bharat Jodo Yatra in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh

Middle of the road party

So colour me surprised when he didn’t showcase any political message or change in the system. Gandhi was the front and centre of the yatra. No other Congress leader was showcased.

That was a missed opportunity as the Congress has an excellent bench strength of seasoned administrators such as former Finance Minister, P Chidambaram, Shashi Tharoor, Sachin Pilot and B S Hooda among others.

Former Reserve Bank of India Governor, Raghuram Rajan walking with him and then having a sort of fireside chat was a good move, adding some economic gravitas and heft to Gandhi.

Rajan is an iconic figure in India and would have sent an important message to the middle class and India Inc, wary of supporting the Congress post attacks on the party as some sort of radical “urban naxals” — a message which the BJP is constantly hammering home.

Former Reserve bank of India (RBI) Governor Raghuram Rajan and Congress Leader Rahul Gandhi interacting during the party's Bharat Jodo Yatra, in Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan (Dec 14, 2022)

The reality is that the Congress party is still a middle of the road mainstream political party, striving to be all things to all people while not being biased against the minorities.

In crucial ways, the Congress is as majoritarian as the BJP, except that it doesn’t demonise the minorities for votes. Gandhi cheerfully drove home this point by visiting places of worship on the route of his yatra.

Decent man on the stump

Gandhi had an answer to every question, even one about getting married. The Congress leader said he saw real love and companionship between his parents as a couple and thus had a very high bar.

I thought this was an extremely thoughtful thing to say because Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi were a rare couple in Indian politics, who actually seemed to be in love and extremely happy.

Certainly the “Pappu” image foisted on him by the BJP, which I exposed in my investigative book “I am a troll” “inside the BJP’s secret digital Army” was blown to smithereens as India saw a smart, fit and decent man on the stump.

Rahul Gandhi Kashmir
Srinagar, Kashmir: Rahul Gandhi flanked by Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, and Priyanka Gandhi on the last day of Bharat Yodo Yatra.

The BJP’s almost relentless, daily attacks on Gandhi and the yatra clearly showed that Rahul Gandhi made them nervous. The BJP tried to portray him as a dilettante who would disappear abroad when the yatra took a break. In a hard pass, the Gandhi scion stayed put in India.

Rahul Gandhi, with his mass contact programme — the first in many decades by the Congress -- struck a deep chord with the ubiquitous party worker who had been weathering many a storm since 2014.

Many workers I spoke to were thrilled seeing Gandhi and speaking to him. Most importantly this sent out the message that the Congress was still in the business of politics and was alive and kicking. Certainly the obituaries, as they say, were premature.

A fight is on.