Following the Bharat Jodo Yatra’s culmination in the snowy terrains of Kashmir, the Congress party is now charting plans to sustain the momentum of the march, and capitalise on it to provide electoral dividends too. On Wednesday, the budget day, Rahul Gandhi attended the parliament session and was received with chants of ‘Bharat Jodo’ by members of the Congress party.
For the last 5 months, the party’s leaders have insisted that the Bharat Jodo Yatra is not a political movement, but a social one. While this was a strategy adopted to ensure that it can address a wide range of issues in its commentary during the march—from unemployment to justice for Bilkis Bano to targeted attacks on Adani-Ambani— the Congress now wants to translate the movement into a more decided political campaign for the party.
On 26 January, about a week before the yatra ended, the Congress’ ‘Hath Se Hath Jodo Yatra’ went to the floor in many states. While some rolled it out in the first few days itself, others are yet to follow suit and are in preparation mode as of now. The Hath se Hath Jodo, as spelt out by the Congress’ communications head and senior leader Jairam Ramesh is meant to “take a direct aim at the PM Modi government’s failure and is strictly a political campaign.”
Hath Se Hath Jodo Yatra: Idea and Execution
Unlike the Bharat Jodo Yatra, this one will be a hyper-localised yatra, carried out by the state leaders and workers of the party. The party’s workers will go door-to-door and give out a ‘chargesheet’ against the BJP government, along with a letter by Rahul Gandhi talking about the aim of the yatra. In most states, such as Uttar Pradesh, the yatra will transpire in three phases: village/block level, district level and then a yatra involving top Pradesh Congress leaders at the state level.
“The idea is to keep the momentum going until the 2024 elections. We have more than a year to go until then, so it will be a challenge,” a Congress MP said.
But the survey positioned the party to win just 68 seats and the UPA 153 seats in the Lok Sabha polls.
So translating the yatra’s 'success’—which is so far more abstract and subjective—into some sort of electoral gain in the Lok Sabha polls is the party’s biggest challenge for now. But even before the Lok Sabha polls, the Congress is hoping to leverage the support it has garnered, for the 2023 state polls.
In Rajasthan, for instance, the focus of the yatra will be less on Congress’ national narrative and will strictly focus on local issues relevant to the upcoming election. “The Rajasthan government will announce the state budget on 10 February, and we hope that it will be a good one. That combined with other policies of the government will form the structure of much of our yatra’s campaigning,” said a party worker, managing the yatra deliverables for Chomu city.
The flip-side to such a localised campaign could be that there would be little to no media coverage of it. In the Bharat Jodo Yatra too, Rahul Gandhi stuck to giving interviews to alternate youtube channels and influencers, straying clear of much of the mainstream media. But that allowed the party to create its own narrative and be more in control of how they define themselves and the movement.
“The hath se hath jodo yatra has just begun, and will go on for at least two months. But we can already tell that state media isn’t interested in covering us. It’s easier to get local youtubers and independent journalists to cover us,” said a Congress MLA in Madhya Pradesh said.
The Challenges Ahead
Besides ensuring that the energy from the Bharat Jodo Yatra doesn’t fizzle out, there are two major challenges that are facing the Congress party in the face.
One, the Rajasthan problem. The Congress party’s leadership had been dragging its feet on a resolution for the continuing cold-war between CM Ashok Gehlot and former deputy CM Sachin Pilot. For the last few months, the party refused to come to a conclusion about the indiscipline inquiries facing Gehlot, despite repeated pressure from Pilot, citing the Bharat Jodo Yatra as a reason. The Congress did not want a crisis in one of the few states where it is in power, to distract from the yatra. But it is unlikely that they will be able to keep a lid on the issue for much longer.
Last week, addressing media, Pilot said he is “saddened and anguished” by the paper leak incidents being reported in the state. “In Rajasthan, the incidents of repeated paper leaks have put the future of youth at a crossroads,” he said, demanding an inquiry into the same.
This came at a time when the opposition BJP in the state was already attacking Gehlot for these series of leaks being reported. Pilot has also spent the last two weeks touring through various districts and holding rallies, potentially building momentum for when he will go all guns blazing against the party if it doesn’t reach a decision soon.
Second, the BJP and its supporters, since the inception of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, have been deriding the Congress to first launch a ‘Congress jodo yatra’, citing the flurry of resignations it has seen in the last few years, such as Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kapil Sibal and Jyotiraditya Scindia.
While the Congress has been able to keep its flock together for most of the yatra, there have been some embarrassments in the last leg. One, when senior party leader Digvijaya Singh raised doubts on the veracity of the 2016 surgical strikes, and the Congress party had to distance itself from the remark, with Rahul Gandhi even calling it “ridiculous.”
Then, Congress’ Kerala unit member Anil Antony quit the party last month, saying he was snubbed by the party for his remarks against the BBC documentary on PM Modi. “'Leadership are only keen to work with sycophants and chamchas,” Antony wrote in his resignation letter. While Antony isn’t a major leader by any stretch, the fact that he is former defense minister A.K. Antony’s son made him a somewhat of an important figure in the state, especially given that Rahul Gandhi invested significant time and energy in the Kerala leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
These and other challenges, more to do with organisational unity and consensus building, are what will need immediate attention now that the yatra is over.