By Harihar Swarup
Since his 3,506-km Bharat Jodo Yatra ended on January 30 in Srinagar, it is time to assess its impact. Rahul Gandhi has shown incredible stamina, a will to complete what he embarked on, instead of, running abroad halfway—which he was known for. The Yatra also showed another side of the usually inaccessible Rahul—even his colleagues used to complain about his lack of accessibility—putting an arm around an old woman, embracing the young, hoisting a child on his shoulders and agreeing to take selfies with countless others and, above all, discuss live issues with groups in the course of the Yatra.
Rahul the reluctant politician, had receded. The response to him has made Rahul the unchallenged leader of the Congress once again.. But there is a flip side to this story and thi is mentioned privately by the senior Congress leaders who accompanies Rahul in the Yatra.
Legitimizing Rahul’s leadership will enable him to continue to take decisions from behind the scenes, like he did earlier, without having to come up front. And this time, criticism of him, even if unwarranted, will become that much more difficult.
Today, the responsibility officially rests with the new party chief Mallikarjun Kharge, who will be called now to translate the goodwill generated by the Yatra into votes, but without a free hand to take decisions.
While Rahul reached out to the media through press conferences during the Yatra, his ”bhshaka Lafda” (in the words of an Ujjain priest) is still dreaded by party men.
His words that “Rahul Gandhi mar gaya”, “Rahul Gandhi aap ke dimag mein hai” was a case in point. It showed an ability to communicate what he wanted to say: he came across as less than politically savvy.
Rahul Gandhi has brought ideology back into political discourse. But his remark that he would rather get “behead” than go to RSS office was a strange formulation for a leader who was throwing flying kisses at the BJP workers that ‘main nafrat ke bazaar me mohabbat ki dukan khol rah hoon”. Or paying homage to Atal Behari Vajpayee at his Samadhi in what was brilliant stroke to come across an inclusive, or meeting sants in Ayodhya. All meant to signal that there can be sharp differences in politics but there no place for enmity.
Clearly, the Congress cannot become a player unless it can capture the middle — ground again. One of the things the party has not been able to do is to figure out how to address the concerns of the Hindus.
The moot question at the end of yatra is this: Has Rahul Gandhi not only enthused the Congress supporters or has he won over some of those who were on the BJP side? Has he been forced fence-sitters to rethink about Modi and the BJP?
There are after all no permanent majorities in a democracy. Even in 2019, there were 120 million people who voted for the Congress. Did Rahul draw to his side people beyond the usual suspects — the left, liberal, pro-congress, and anti-Modi crowd? Yes, to enthuse your own demoralized base is no small achievement. But it is not adequate enough, enough.
The Congress has put into place follow-up to the BJY like the “haath ke saath jodo programme” which is being led by Priyanka Gandhi which the party will also try and build. She was portrayed as the architect of the Congress victory in Himachal Pradesh and is spearheading initiatives to win over the crucial women’s vote.
Rahul could have walked with 15 leaders of the Congress in every state he touched and show cased them as the future of the party. But he chose not to do this, keeping it a solo show. He has successfully rebranded his image, which appears to have been the purpose of the exercise. There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, the BJP’s machinery is constantly building up the Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a super icon.
Rahul Gandhi has all along let it be known that “I am what I am”. Take it or leave it. That is a stand an individual MP can take but not one who leads the party for all practical purposes.
Every step Rahul takes – and his decisions behind the scenes — has a bearing on the Congress. It is this contradiction the party had to live with in the past and will have to live with. In future.
Rahul Gandhi of 2023 has gathered goodwill, an asset which gets tucked away somewhere in people’s consciences, to be encashed at the appropriate moment. But it is unlikely to translate into votes unless Modi’s actions start to unite resentment and Rahul Gandhi starts to reconstruct the Congress Organization into a fighting machine for 2024. As of now, both look like long shots. (IPA Service)