Bharat Jodo Yatra: Small step for party, giant leap for Rahul

Bharat Jodo Yatra: Small step for party, giant leap for Rahul

The 108 days of Bharat Jodo Yatra have accomplished what ceaseless Congress efforts couldn’t in the last decade: reinvented Rahul Gandhi as an empathetic national leader with a finger on people’s pulse.

But amid the euphoria, a central question remains: has the Yatra helped to resurrect the image of the Congress and its leadership? 

The Congress, or a substantial part of it, is perceived to be a product of the post-1991 economic reforms – a party of ‘deal makers’ – rather than those representing the ideals that inspired the independence movement or the idealism of the early years of post-1947 India’s tryst with destiny.

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Political activist Yogendra Yadav, whose association with the Yatra has helped it reach out to thousands of activists and groups not traditionally Congress supporters, describes the achievements of the Congress’ long march succinctly.

He says the Yatra has successfully challenged the web of bigotry and hatred nourished in the country since 2014 and erased the ‘Pappu’ image of Rahul.

On Saturday, at a press conference in New Delhi, his ninth since the Yatra began in September, Rahul said something to the tune of Rs 5,000-6,000 crore, maybe more, have been spent to defame him. He said the Yatra offered an alternative vision, rooted in harmony, to the country, and that it was no longer a political but a cultural battle.

While the Yatra has helped disabuse the perception of Rahul as a reluctant politician, it might be a tall order to expect the rest of the Congress leadership to unlearn habits and thought patterns shaped over the last three decades.

The first signs that Rahul could surprise his party leaders were evident as he led the effort to shape the Congress manifesto for the Gujarat Assembly polls of 2017.

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Five years back, Rahul’s team reached out not only to the Congress workers but also to the activists working on the ground among tribals and the poor to draft a manifesto that party leaders dismissed as too radical for a mainstream centrist party.

A significant section of the party leaders is still upset that he keeps them out of the decision-making process or does not seek their counsel. They still disagree with the guiding philosophy of the Yatra and how it aims to transform the party.

The task ahead for Rahul and his team would be to prepare party workers and leaders, trained in the art of pragmatic politics rather than ideology, to support his alternative vision.

Several in the party leadership haven’t always added their voice to Rahul’s. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, few in the party echoed their party chief’s campaign of ‘chowkidar chor hai’, but he has now drawn a line, especially on taking an unambiguous anti-RSS stand.

His criticism of V D Savarkar when the Yatra traversed Maharashtra, where the freedom fighter with offensive views on Muslims is a cultural icon, is a case in point. But he showed political flexibility by offering his tribute to former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee on December 26, a day after the BJP leader’s birth anniversary, at his samadhi in the national capital.

According to party strategists, Rahul has used the Yatra to benchmark Congress positions on issues from which the party cannot step back. This “alternative” framework to fight the cultural battle with the BJP-RSS encompasses not just a harmonious social contract, it also rethinks Congress’s economic vision.

He has repeatedly said he is opposed to the conception of a handful of “national champions”, big corporate groups, running the Indian economy.

But he is not against big business or becoming a votary of state ownership either: former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan’s presence at the Yatra being a case in point.

In the past, Rahul had said the 1991 reforms had an expiry in 2012. The Congress leader has kept his narrative focused on price rise, joblessness, and the need for growth of the MSMEs. He has asked uncomfortable questions to the government on its foreign policy, particularly the Chinese encroaching on Indian territory.

During the Yatra, he also tried to project that the party believes in decentralised decision-making, asking journalists to direct their questions about the party to its president Mallikarjun Kharge.

The party has tried to counter criticism that the high command runs it according to its whims and fancies by not taking action against Ashok Gehlot, weighing in favour of Bhupesh Baghel in his intra-party battle with T S Singh Deo and picking Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu as the Himachal CM.

But questions still persist about the efficacy of the Yatra’s message and its electoral utility. Elections in Karnataka and the north Indian states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in December will provide an answer to both.

It is also unclear if the Yatra has helped Rahul find second-rung leaders he can trust, a huge problem within the party, who are popular and agree with his ideological worldview.