This Article is From Feb 17, 2023

Opinion: Bharat Jodo Yatra Was Good. Rahul Gandhi, Now Move On

When Rahul Gandhi began his Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) in September, many doubted that he would walk the entire course. After all, he was the "reluctant politician", hardly a match for his 24x7 adversaries with their blazing pursuit of power.

His track record doesn't help. In his two decades in politics, Rahul Gandhi has taken off to undisclosed foreign locations every few months, and often at politically critical moments. It was naturally assumed that Rahul Gandhi would take a break - or many of them - in course of his Bharat Jodo Yatra.

As it turned out, walking was not one of Rahul Gandhi's problems. Unknown to most, physical fitness is his superpower.

On the last day of the Yatra, in snow-wrapped Srinagar, he plodded through slush and ice, waving aside an umbrella held up for him. Addressing a rally that day, flecks of snow clinging to his beard, he was a far cry from "Pappu" - the name many in the BJP use derisively for the Congress leader. 

But the Yatra and the valorous tales of walking more than 3,500 km should have been in the past by now. The walk from the southernmost tip of India to the symbolic northern crest of India is just the start of a far more complex and complicated journey.

Rahul Gandhi should have immediately applied himself to the task of giving shape to the political narrative he crafted over the past few months. He should have tried to convert spontaneity into resolve, identify challenges and devise a plan.

But almost a fortnight after the end of the Bharat Jodo Yatra and a week after his speech in Lok Sabha, there is no such plan for beating the party into shape ahead of 2024.

Those who see the Yatra as a counter-narrative to the BJP say there are a few promising facts.

One, the Yatra drew big crowds, even in the Kashmir Valley. 

Two, Rahul Gandhi consistently used the vocabulary of 'love', contrasting sharply with hate rhetoric, and this found takers. This, according to the Rahul cheer squad, showed that support for the BJP's majoritarian politics is shrinking. And that the ideology of the Congress still resonates among people.

The third and most important point - that Rahul Gandhi's image has undergone a complete makeover.

Unfortunately, harping on Rahul Gandhi makes the long Yatra seem essentially about recasting his image.

A campaign like this cannot be about one man's image.

The Congress and Rahul Gandhi need to understand that as long as Narendra Modi's personal stock soars, efforts to pit another leader against him will yield nothing. 

For people to desire change, it is important to talk about what impacts their daily lives.

This may be a herculean task as Narendra Modi is a master at this game. Not only does he speak the language of the masses, but he also weaves in civilisational themes that go deep and awaken in people a sense of imaginary denials and past humiliations.

The Congress must also realise that any attempt to convert gains from the Bharat Jodo Yatra into Rahul Gandhi's personal capital will antagonise other opposition leaders.

Having either won or emerged second in almost 250 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 polls, the Congress remains the largest non-BJP party. But for it to be able to convert anywhere near 50 per cent of these seats, the party has to strike tactical alliances. 

This would require dimming the spotlight on Rahul Gandhi.

The Congress's performance in state elections later this year could be its key to making senior partner in its alliances with regional parties.

But even success in Karnataka and a reasonable showing in the three northern states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh will not give the Congress the head start it needs for 2024.

Modi said last week in parliament that "one person is weighing on an entire opposition brigade". 

These are early days yet. But as they prepare to face a string of elections, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress would be better served by underplaying gains from the Yatra and focusing instead on challenges ahead.

Modi and the BJP are formidable. Turning the tables on them is a mathematical possibility. But for that, Rahul Gandhi and his party both need to be far more creative and imaginative than they have been until now.

(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is 'The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India'. He has also written 'The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right' and 'Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times'.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.