Bharat Jodo Yatra: An End or a Beginning?

Will the Bharat Jodo Yatra place Rahul Gandhi in a strong position to exert decisive authority within Congress and make him a vastly more acceptable political figure in the country and would position Congress with might and main in the elections?

By Arun Bhatnagar
  • Rahul Gandhi has tried to identify Congress’ problems of ideological vacuum and disconnect with the people. The challenge for him is to distil ideology that will attract voters
  • The Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh was thankful that the Hill State was covered in the Yatra, although initially not included in the itinerary
  • In the coming months, the Congress Party may be well-advised to aim at transforming the Yatra into a sort of Movement that gains further momentum
  • Concerned that the ‘declining winnability’ of SC and ST seats, the Congress have shortlisted 56 reserved parliamentary constituencies 
  • for focused attention in 2023-24

On two counts, namely, an anticipated rejuvenation of the Congress Party and a possible rediscovery of democratic values and norms, the Bharat Jodo Yatra (September 2022 – January 2023) could be said to have succeeded, not only in its early phase but overall, as well.

Shatrughan Sinha, who joined the Trinamool Congress (TMC) last year and is a Member of Parliament, subscribes to the view that Rahul Gandhi has proved his leadership qualities through the Yatra which would help the Congress to significantly increase its tally in the next Lok Sabha elections. He added: ‘Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is revolutionary. His personality has become a symbol of wisdom for the youth. The country has not seen any such Yatra before…’.

The BJP’s top brass, including the Prime Minister, cannot be expected to carry the entire burden of securing electoral victories on their shoulders.

Some analysts think that the impact of the Yatra turns on the question as to whether it will place Rahul Gandhi in a strong position to exert decisive authority within Congress and make him a vastly more acceptable figure, politically.

ACTION OF REVIVAL

While it stands to reason that, because of the participation of non-political groups, the Party had to be wary of overemphasizing the objective of a Congress revival, this should not have stood in the way of the Yatra’s managers better mobilising the cadres and grassroots adherents when it traversed their areas. It was a given that when the Yatra entered a State, suitable occasions were organised to hold rallies and meetings, focused on the ‘core issues’.

Rahul has often been an easy foil for the ruling dispensation in order, perhaps, to make Prime Minister Narendra Modi look extraordinary; will the Yatra do enough to establish him as an electoral asset who could be projected as a serious challenger in 2024?

This will also require significant Opposition unity that is potently operationalized. The Chief Ministers of Bihar, West Bengal, Delhi, Telangana and the Opposition grandees are essentially politicians whose reading of the Yatra will indicate if it can have a long-lasting impact.

In an interaction in Kolhapur (Maharashtra), leading veteran, Sharad Pawar (born 1940) opined: “The peoples’ attitude towards Rahul Gandhi has changed. He will help in bringing a consensus among the opposition parties in the future… he is ready to work hard… walking from Kanniyakumari to Kashmir is not an easy task, but he is doing it”.

Rahul Gandhi has tried to identify Congress’ problems of ideological vacuum and disconnect with the people. The challenge for him is to distil ideology into specific programmes and policies that will attract voters.

The question also is: why does the Congress not contest elections with energy and efficiency?

YATRA IN UTTAR PRADESH

There was a huge turnout in the National Capital Region (NCR) in December 2022 when, in discussion with ex-servicemen, Rahul warned: “… India is extremely vulnerable… the clashes… at Galwan and Doklam were part of China’s strategy to hit India together with Pakistan… China and Pakistan have become one and if a war breaks out, it will not just be with one, but with both…. Whatever action we have to take, we have to start now… Actually, we should have taken action five years ago, which we did
not….”

Two things are clear viz the BJP will employ ‘Hindutva’ as a major weapon in the Lok Sabha elections and that the response to Bharat Jodo Yatra is causing concern at highest levels in the government about Rahul Gandhi’s emergence as a mature politician

Congress leaders and workers in Uttar Pradesh were enthused by the public reaction to the Yatra, one of them saying that large crowds of Muslims had turned up from the Loni border in Ghaziabad district to Kairana in Shamli district and that ‘…. from madrasa children to burqa-clad women, to ulemas, a lot of people were seen walking with Rahul Gandhi or standing in queues…’.

A spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party (SP) commented that this was not a warning signal to the SP because ‘we’re not fighting the Congress. Our fight is with the BJP’.

The Uttar Pradesh leg of the Yatra ended early in the New Year; the route was changed from Bulandshahr to Baghpat and ripples were felt in the politically volatile western part of the State.
Even as the BJP labelled it an attempt to garner Muslim votes and announced that the Ram Temple in Ayodhya would open on January 1, 2024, the Congress does seem to have managed to reach out and raise a range of issues.

The crowds in North India were probably larger than elsewhere. Two things have become clear viz the BJP will employ ‘Hindutva’ as a major weapon in the Lok Sabha elections and that the response to the Bharat Jodo Yatra is causing concern at the highest levels in the government about Rahul Gandhi’s emergence as a mature politician.

In Tripura, the Union Home Minister – one of the most powerful men in the country – referred to him as ‘Rahul baba’ (in the manner that nannies address their wards) but the jibe was not quite effective.
Rahul Gandhi’s standing has grown. Highlighting the reality in India, he said that only 4 or 5 persons are getting richer by the day and they can go into any business of their choice.

HARYANA & PUNJAB LEG

He criticised the Agnipath recruitment scheme in Haryana, claiming that the youth were being threatened not to protest against it and (taking note of the CMIE Unemployment Data, lately released) said that : ‘In the twenty-first century, Haryana is the champion of unemployment (rate of unemployment of 38 percent)’.

The Haryana leg passed through the GT road and Babarpur and Rahul Gandhi addressed a big public rally in Panipat. It was an all-women walk in the Yatra on Monday, January 9, 2023, demonstrating a commitment to female empowerment.

Rakesh Tikait, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader met him in Haryana and reportedly said that the Yatra had connected a lot of people.

Addressing a gathering in Sirhind, when starting the Punjab segment, Rahul asserted that India stood for ‘brotherhood, unity and respect’; after reaching Sri Harmander Sahib and offering prayers at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the Yatra passed through Mandi Gobindgarh, Khanna, Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Mukerian.

Soon after the Yatra entered Punjab, the BJP called for a boycott and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) asked Rahul to spell out his stand on Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.

In Hoshiarpur district, he remarked that ‘the Sikh community is the backbone of the country… I have tremendous love and affection for the people of Punjab and, in particular, Sikhs. So reconciliation is a small word… I have… huge respect for Sikhs for what they have done and for what they are going to do in future.’

Back in January 2014, he had admitted in a televised interview that certain Congresspersons had been involved in the violence. He was also aware that party colleagues had been victims of the Punjab insurgency, such as Manish Tewari whose father, a University Professor, was gunned down by militants in Chandigarh.

In Ludhiana, he reiterated that ‘…the billionaires of India cannot provide employment… instead small and medium businesses… can provide employment… if they are strengthened, if they are helped… there is no vision, there is no thought process in this direction….

YATRA IN HILL STATES

Before heading to Jammu, Rahul Gandhi passed through Himachal Pradesh where, in Kangra district, he said about the Yatra that ‘this fight is actually not political, it is a fight of ideology…’.
The Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh was thankful that the Hill State – in which the Congress has returned to power – was covered in the Yatra, although initially not included in the itinerary.
As part of the final lap (on Republic Day, 2023, to be precise), the Congress has announced the launch of a campaign called ‘Haath se Haath Jodo Abhiyan’ to cover 2.5 lakh gram panchayats, six lakh villages and about 10 lakh election booths, by way of processing the manifold issues arising from the Yatra.
The Hand (or Open Palm or Haath) is the Congress’ election symbol. This is the political messaging in the follow-up to the Bharat Jodo Yatra.

Rahul Gandhi has often been an easy foil for the ruling dispensation in order, perhaps, to make Prime Minister Narendra Modi look extraordinary; will the Bharat Jodo Yatra do enough to establish him as an electoral asset who could be projected as a serious challenger in 2024?

Concerned that the ‘declining winnability’ of SC and ST seats is responsible for the poor electoral performance, the Congress is believed to have shortlisted 56 reserved parliamentary constituencies (out of the 121 it lost in the last Lok Sabha polls) for focused attention in 2023-24.

Rahul Gandhi – in a letter to households – termed Rs 500 per gas cylinder as his idea of economic prosperity, alongside such essentials as cheaper fuel, jobs for youth and better conditions for farmers.
The Tiranga will be hoisted by Rahul Gandhi on January 30, 2023 (Martyrs’ Day and Anniversary of the Mahatma’s assassination) at the Congress Headquarters in Srinagar; the main event to mark the culmination of the Yatra is to be held at the Sher-i-Kashmir International Convention Centre (SKICC), Srinagar the same day.

Before that, Farooq Abdullah and Choudhary Lal Singh joined the Yatra at Lakhanpur and Omar Abdullah in the Kashmir Valley. Other senior leaders, including Mehbooba Mufti and Sanjay Raut (of the Uddhav Thackeray Shiv Sena), as also Captain Bana Singh, Param Vir Chakra recipient, participated.

The Captain (then a Naib Subedar in the Indian Army) led the team that, in June 1987, wrested control of the highest peak on the Siachen Glacier in Kashmir from Pakistan forces, as part of Operation Rajiv.
Sanjay Raut said: “The atmosphere in the country is changing fast and I am seeing Rahul Gandhi as a leader who is raising his voice on real issues. The way people are connecting with this Yatra is heartwarming”.

Drawing a parallel, Farooq Abdullah remarked: “Many years ago, the Shankaracharya had undertaken such a journey. And today you are doing it”.

The President of the J&K Pradesh Congress Committee, Vikar Rasool Wani (39 years), alleged: “The government has not done a single work in the interest of the people …. daily wage labourers are on the streets for the last 6-7 years’, adding that unemployment and costs of commodities are rising”.
Mehbooba’s daughter, 35-year-old Iltija Mufti, looks set to join politics, in which case this could become one other instance of dynastic politics.

IMPACT OF YATRA

In 1992, the Tiranga was unfurled at the Clock Tower in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk by the then BJP chief, Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, who introduced an ‘energetic and promising leader, Narendra Modi’.
Amid tight security, it was a 15-minute affair on the occasion of Republic Day and terminated the BJP’s Ekta Yatra which had also begun from Kanniyakumari.

Congress President, Mallikarjun Kharge, approached the heads of a number of ‘like-minded’ Parties to join the concluding function on January 30, 2023. He stated that their presence would strengthen the Yatra’s message of ‘truth and compassion’.

The Congress has announced the launch of a campaign called ‘Haath se Haath Jodo Abhiyan’ to cover 2.5 lakh gram panchayats, six lakh villages and about 10 lakh election booths, by way of processing the manifold issues arising from the Yatra

The attendance of Parties that are in the Opposition in Parliament was impressive at a mega-rally organised in January 2023 at Khammam (Telangana) by the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) – its first since turning national, after the earlier identity of Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) – at which four Chief Ministers, that is, of Kerala, Delhi, Punjab and Telangana, along with Akhilesh Yadav (Samajwadi Party) and D Raja (CPI) were present, resolving to jointly combat undermining of the federal structure.
Soon after the rally, the Bihar Chief Minister – who appears to have finally parted ways with the BJP – commented: “I keep saying, I want nothing for myself. I only have one dream – to see Opposition leaders unite and forge ahead. That will benefit the country”.

Voices have also been heard from other sections of the Indian political arena. Venturing outside the domain of his current responsibilities as Union Minister for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, a former Maharashtra Chief Minister, Narayan Rane (originally in the Shiv Sena) took it upon himself to predict that a recession may hit the country after June 2023, even as he applauded the ‘use of lotus in India’s G20 Presidency symbol’.

When Professor Amartya Sen, Economics Nobel Laureate, lately said that West Bengal’s lady Chief Minister has the ability to be India’s next Prime Minister, the TMC chief promptly responded that “his advice is an order for us… Sen is a world-renowned intellectual. His insight shows us the path…”.
Clearly, a consensus choice on the Opposition’s PM face will be no uncomplicated task.

Not to be outdone, the Congress’ Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala), Shashi Tharoor, has said that it will be ‘impossible’ for the BJP to replicate its 2019 electoral triumph in 2024 and that it is ‘conceivable’ that the Party loses ’50 seats’ in the next Lok Sabha.

Should the Congress Party remain un-galvanized, the Bharat Jodo Yatra might still not have been an exercise in futility but more in the nature of a political reinvention, albeit incomplete, and supplemented by programmes sponsored by various State units.

It is not common for politicians to invest time and energy in linking party politics with politics in a broader sense. The Yatra is one such experiment.

In the coming months, the Congress Party may be well-advised to aim at transforming the Yatra into a sort of Movement that gains further momentum, leading to the upcoming round of elections.
All things considered, the key question that awaits being answered in the early months of 2024 is:
Will it be BJP vs Congress or BJP vs the Rest?

Arun Bhatnagar

Arun Bhatnagar was formerly in the IAS and retired as Secretary, GOI. He attended St. Stephen’s College, Delhi in the early sixties. After retiring as Secretary (Personnel & Training) in the Union Government in 2004, he worked with the National Advisory Council (NAC) and, later, as Chairman, Prasar Bharati, New Delhi. He has had postings in the President of India’s Secretariat and in the Indian High Commission,
London. Bhatnagar’s earlier Book, ‘India: Shedding the Past, Embracing the Future, 1906-2017’, was well received as a historical narrative.

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