The Congress on 7 September started what it claims to be its biggest national-level mass mobilisation in decades - the Bharat Jodo Yatra. The Yatra will pass through 11 states and two Union Territories and the route begins from Kanniyakumari in Tamil Nadu and will end at Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir.
The plan is that Rahul Gandhi along with 100 Yatris will walk 20-25 kilometers everyday to cover the entire distance over the next five months.
Given the scale of the Yatra and the resources being deployed, will the Yatra be a game-changer as the Congress hopes? Or will it be a dud as many of Congress' critics are predicting?
The truth, as with most things in politics, lies somewhere in between. And both Congress' supporters as well as critics would do well to be a little realistic about the outcomes of the Yatra.
Let's look at what the Congress could potentially gain through the Yatra as well as the factors that could prevent it from being a political game-changer.
What The Congress Could Gain
1. Mass Contact Is Never a Bad Idea
Bringing people to your side is the most fundamental aim in electoral politics. Therefore no mass contact programme or public outreach can ever be a bad idea.
A calculation done by The Quint based on the route provided by the organisers indicates that the Bharat Jodo Yatra may pass through around 63-66 Lok Sabha constituencies. Here's the break-up:
Tamil Nadu: 2 seats
Kerala: 13 Seats
Karnataka: 6-7 seats
Andhra Pradesh 1 seat
Telangana: 4 seats
Maharashtra: 6 seats
Madhya Pradesh: 4 seats
Rajasthan: 5-6 seats
Haryana: 6 seats
Uttar Pradesh: 3 seats
Delhi 3-4 seats
Punjab: 6 seats
Jammu and Kashmir: 4 seats
The Bharat Jodo Yatra may pass through over 60 Lok Sabha seats.
This is no small number and comprises about 12 percent of the Lok Sabha. Even if one takes the worst case scenario from the point of view of the Congress - that the Yatra doesn't generate any excitement on media or social media - there is no doubt that it will create some buzz at least in these 60 odd constituencies and possibly some adjoining ones as well.
Whether it leads to any long term electoral benefits, is a different matter and we'll come to that later.
2. Party Workers' Morale
There is no doubt that the Yatra is likely to boost the morale of Congress workers and supporters. The main complaint that Congress workers had is that the leadership "doesn't hit the ground enough" or that it "lacks direction" and doesn't undertake a "sustained mobilisation".
The Yatra is likely to address many of these concerns. Because besides Rahul Gandhi and the 100 Yatris, scores of Congress workers are likely to join the Yatra at different parts of time.
The Pradesh Congress units in these 11 states and 2 UTs will be mobilising people from different districts and bringing them to the Yatra segment that falls under them.
3. Providing an Ideological Direction
The Yatra seems to be also aimed at providing a certain ideological clarity to the Congress rank and file. Based on the content provided by the Congress on the Yatra so far, there seems to be a clear thrust on "inclusivity, brotherhood" and against "cronyism", "price rise" and unemployment".
Though this is not the first time the Congress is stressing on these aspects, but their deployment during the Yatra is a message to party cadres that these are going to be the party's main planks in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
4. Unity in the Party
The Yatra comes at a time when senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad has left the party and a number of others like Anand Sharma, Prithviraj Chavan, Manish Tewari among others also have been expressing their dissatisfaction.
The Yatra therefore is an effort to unite the party for the sake of a larger cause and prevent further fissures.
What Are Its Drawbacks?
1. What is the Yatra Really Aimed At?
For any mass mobilisation to emerge as a political movement or at least have a major political impact, there needs to be a clearly defined aim. LK Advani's Rath Yatra had a clear aim - construction of a Ram Mandir at the disputed site in Ayodhya and a broader consolidation of Hindus.
YS Rajasekhara Reddy's massive Padyatra across Andhra Pradesh in 2003 was aimed at exposing the then N Chandrababu Naidu regime's alleged anti-poor policies.
YS Jaganmohan Reddy's Padyatra in the run-up to the 2019 Assembly polls had a similar aim. Jagan also conducted an Odarpu Yatra in 2010 to offer condolences to people whose kin had committed suicide following YS Rajasekhara Reddy's tragic death in 2009.
In contrast, Murli Manohar Joshi's Bharat Ekta Yatra had a vague brief and didn't achieve much on its own, besides adding to what Advani's Yatra had already achieved.
The same can be said about LK Advani's Bharat Uday Yatra of 2004, that mainly aimed at showcasing the Vajpayee government's achievements.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra's brief is a bit vague. On one hand, it talks about brotherhood and on the other hand it seeks to target the Modi government on unemployment. There is no clear demand or aim.
Then the title 'Bharat Jodo' may be alright from the point of view of social harmony, but it doesn't capture the economic component of the Yatra - that is issues like unemployment and price rise.
Several surveys have shown that unemployment and price rise remain the biggest issues affecting people. And they may also represent the best chance of defeating the BJP. However, the centrality of these issues isn't coming across in the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
The title itself gives rise to questions like "Why Bharat Jodo? Is India broken?". While there is no denying that there is a deep fissure in India's social fabric due to rising communal hatred, it may not be a great idea for a mainstream political party to march claiming that India itself is broken.
2. Is This a Rahul Gandhi Show or Not?
Whether the organisers admit it openly or not, the Bharat Jodo Yatra is being used to project Rahul Gandhi. In the photos, videos and other publicity material being released on the official Bharat Jodo Yatra social media platforms, Rahul Gandhi clearly emerges as the face of the Yatra.
However, sources in the party say that Gandhi refused to release an audio message inviting people to the Yatra as he felt "it shouldn't seem that he is getting too much prominence".
On the other hand, several leaders like Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Bhupesh Baghel, Shashi Tharoor, Kumari Selja, Nana Patole among others released video messages.
This duality surrounding Rahul Gandhi - his being the party's most prominent face and yet being reluctant to be seen as prominent - is affecting the Bharat Jodo Yatra as well.
If the Yatra was purely aimed at defeating the BJP, a better option would have been to keep the focus on issues like price rise and unemployment and then showcase the Congress as having a 'team' that has solutions to these problems.
The vague brief of the Yatra and primacy given to Rahul Gandhi over others blunts its political impact to some extent.
3. Confusion in the Organisation
Then there is also said to be some degree of confusion in the organisation of the Yatra. Any personality-oriented Yatra should ideally be preceded by detailed groundwork either by cadres or professionals in the areas that are being covered.
The homework would include identifying local influencers the leader should meet in a particular area, the different issues to be highlighted in different areas, communities and their symbols that need to be kept in mind in that area.
No such detailed groundwork seems to have been done. While Digvijaya Singh is the overall in-charge of the Yatra, many of the decisions are being taken by Rahul Gandhi and his team.
Then a firm called Teen Bandar has been hired to handle the social media, publicity and content side of things.
However, the ground level work has almost entirely been left to the PCCs. Therefore there is a certain disjointedness in the structure.
There have already been a few faux pas - such as the posting of an image of an AAP volunteer or a controversial image of a Muslim mob with the caption "nafrat chhodo".
Then the media coverage even on the inauguration of the Yatra and earlier the launch of its logo, was underwhelming. However, this could well be the result of deliberate blacking out by some news channels.
So Will the Yatra Help the Congress Electorally?
Maybe, maybe not.
Yes, the Yatra is likely to boost the morale in the Congress and bring greater unity to the party. For a Congress worker or even a lay supporter, the Yatra will no doubt come as a huge step.
But will it convince any BJP voter to shift to the Congress? This may be unlikely. A Yatra with a sharper brief and well defined aims, especially on the economy, would have been a better initiative for this purpose.
The Yatra may get decent crowds in the first few weeks as it passes through Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka - states where the party has a decent cadre strength and strong state leaders. Rahul Gandhi's popularity is also much higher in Kerala and Tamil Nadu compared to other states.
The real test would come as the Yatra moves Northwards.