In the run up to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meet scheduled for 28 August, where the timeline for the party’s internal polls is set to be decided, there has been a growing demand from within the Congress for Rahul Gandhi to resume the role that he resigned from after the 2019 Lok Sabha election drubbing.
But Gandhi has spent the last week in preparation for the Congress’ much-anticipated ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ beginning on 7 September. The 3,500 km-long Kanyakumari-to-Kashmir yatra is supposed to last 150 days and cover 12 States and two Union Territories.
This poses a conundrum for Gandhi, to take on a more grassroots’ leader-like role, that he wishes to by way of the yatra, or to finally accept the responsibility that comes with the post of the party president—one that he has shied away from so far. But the yatra itself is riddled with some challenges.
Calls For 'Reluctant' Rahul Gandhi To Come Back As Party President
In the last few days, the calls for Rahul Gandhi to take on the role of the president have been made publicly by some Congress leaders. Congress’ leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said that only Rahul Gandhi can become the president, a sentiment that was also echoed by Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, shortly after it was reported that he has been asked by none other than interim president Sonia Gandhi to consider assuming the responsibility.
“If Rahul Gandhi does not become the party president, it will be a disappointment for the Congressmen in the country,” Gehlot told the media Wednesday.
However, former Madhya Pradesh CM and party leader Digvijaya Singh, on the same day told NDTV that "we can't force Rahul Gandhi if he doesn't want to become Congress president.”
This is nothing short of a public acknowledgement by a Congress leader that Rahul is in fact hesitant in becoming the president—even after over three years of stepping down from the post.
“When he had quit from the post after the 2019 election loss, the idea was that he wants to come back as president only once he feels he has earned it,” a Congress leader told The Quint.
But the last three years haven’t exactly propped Rahul Gandhi as the ‘obvious choice’ for the role of party president as he would have hoped. The Congress government fell in Karnataka in 2019 and Madhya Pradesh in 2020, and the party lost important state elections like Kerala (where Gandhi served as the primary campaigner for the Congress), Assam, Punjab, and also fared worse in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections as compared to 2017.
In such a circumstance, an alternate idea for Rahul Gandhi to position himself as a grassroots-leader, and to lead a bridge of sorts between the opposition Congress and the civil society groups was conceived.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra was designed as a step in that direction, with the tag line ‘Mile Kadam, Jude Vatan’.
Ambitious Task Ahead
The Yatra has been conceptualised at an unprecedented and massive scale. After paying homage at the Sriperumbudur memorial near Chennai, the site of the assassination of his father Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, Gandhi will launch the Yatra in Kanyakumari.
“There will be 100 padyatris who will walk from the start to finish. They will be Bharat Yatris. Around 100 people will keep joining from the states through which this yatra is not passing, these people will be Atithi Yatris. Around 100 yatris will be involved from the states through which the journey will pass, these will be Pradesh Yatris. At a time, there will be 300 padyatris,” Digvijaya Singh told the media.
This, however, will not be a logistically easy ask.
“It is definitely a very ambitious project, perhaps the most ambitious we have seen from a political party in a long while. The real challenge will be to successfully sustain it over the period of several months as planned,” a Congress leader told The Quint.
The Congress has already been shamed for committing a faux pas during the publicity of the campaign. The party ended up sharing an image of AAP workers, from the India Against Corruption (IAC) days, in a poster for the Congress’ ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’.
“Why pretend to be BJP's opposition by using our pictures? Actually, thanks for accepting that we are the REAL opposition,” the AAP tweeted from its official handle, taking a dig at Congress.
Involvement Of Civil Society Groups
But besides logistical issues, there are other hiccups too.
Ahead of the yatra, Rahul Gandhi met with various civil society activists on 22 August at Delhi’s Constitutional Club of India. These included Aruna Roy, Yogendra Yadav, Syeda Hameed, P.V. Rajgopal, Bezwada Wilson, G.N. Devy and many others.
Gandhi spoke of starting a “politics of uniting, not dividing” at the interaction, and of “building bridges among like-minded people.”
After the closed-door discussion, the Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh told reporters that Gandhi spent 90 minutes interacting with about 150 civil society organisations from 22 States.
Ramesh also described the movement as “a political yatra in a non-partisan way.”
“We have appealed to other political parties, civil society groups and individuals who are worried, concerned, anguished and pained at the current state of the Indian democracy, society and economy to participate in the yatra,” he said.
But this might not be as straightforward. One of the primary aims of the yatra would be to re-energise the Congress cadre. So even with the involvement of civil society groups, the party will have to always retain the movement’s political characteristic—centering Rahul Gandhi at all times.
“It’s true that we can’t afford to dilute the political nature of the yatra, it is the blood and sweat of Congress workers that is after all resulting in such a mammoth project...but the civil society members will hopefully serve to show how there is a bigger purpose to this movement than just petty politics. In that sense, it is political but not necessarily a partisan movement,” a senior Congress leader said.