The Punjab phase of the Congress party's Bharat Jodo Yatra was overshadowed by the tragic demise of the party's MP from Jalandhar, Santokh Singh Chaudhary.
A two-term MP and a prominent Ad-Dharmi leader, 76-year-old Chaudhary enjoyed respect across party lines and his demise is no doubt a big loss for the Congress. A true Congressman, Chaudhary died while walking during the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Phillaur less than an hour after he spoke at a public meeting flanked by leaders of different faiths.
However, the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Punjab wasn't without its high moments. The late Sidhu Moose Wala's father Balkaur Singh joined the Yatra in Jalandhar, former AAP MP Dharamvira Gandhi joined it in Fatehgarh Sahib, Rahul Gandhi's interactions with intellectuals, ex-servicemen, Arhtiyas, lawyers and other sections seem to have gone well.
But what's the overall impact of the Yatra in Punjab? Can it help the Congress revive in the state?
To find out, The Quint joined the Yatra in Ludhiana and Jalandhar districts and went back to some of the areas covered by the Yatra earlier. Here are some of our observations as the Yatra's Punjab lap came to an end on 19 January.
What Worked for the Party?
1. Energised Cadre
By and large, the Yatra energised the party cadre. Congress workers had become extremely despondent following the party's defeat in the 2022 Assembly elections. They were further weakened by a series of defections that took place with leaders like Sunil Jakhar, Gurpreet Kangar, Raj Kumar Verka, Balbir Sidhu, Sunder Sham Arora joining the BJP. Even during the Yatra, former finance minister Manpreet Badal, a known favourite of the Congress' central leadership, shifted to the BJP.
The Yatra sent the message to the cadres in Punjab that the party isn't giving up or conceding space and that Punjab remains a priority for it.
But the Yatra mobilised the party cadres towards a positive end and they turned out in large numbers at the Yatra. In places like Jalandhar city, the Yatra also attracted a sizable number of common people especially among the party's traditional Dalit and Upper Caste Hindu vote bases.
During the Yatra, however, leaders like PCC chief Amarinder Singh Raja Warring, Leader of the Opposition Partap Singh Bajwa, former CM Charanjit Channi, Rajasthan in-charge Sukhjinder Randhawa did present a united front. Even sulking Khadoor Sahib MP Jasbir Singh Dimpa also voiced his support for the yatra.
2. Five Lok Sabha Seats Covered
The Bharat Jodo Yatra passed through five out of 13 Lok Sabha seats in Punjab - Fatehgarh Sahib, Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur and Gurdaspur.
These along with Anandpur Sahib also represent the Congress' best bets in the Lok Sabha election.
In terms of percentage of Lok Sabha seats covered, Punjab was probably among the most extensively covered states in the Yatra after probably Kerala.
3. Optics & Rahul Gandhi's Interactions
The participation of Balkaur Singh was, no doubt, significant. As long as the alleged masterminds behind Sidhu Moose Wala's killing roam free, it would remain a major issue for many people and Balkaur Singh is the main face articulating this grievance.
Similarly, Dr Dharamvira Gandhi is a respected figure who has worked selflessly for people as a doctor and activist. His presence at the Yatra no doubt lends it some credibility beyond Congress loyalists.
Rahul Gandhi wearing a turban and visiting Harmandir Sahib and Fatehgarh Sahib also made for good optics, though it also opened the Congress up to questions over Operation Blue Star and the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom.
Rahul Gandhi's interactions with intellectuals, lawyers, Arhtiyas, young farmers, ex-servicemen and other sections, coordinated by the party's former candidate from Raikot, Kamil Amar Singh, also went well.
Those witness to these interactions say that Gandhi was faced with some tough questions and reality checks but he is said to have handled them with poise. At least the interactions did send the signal to different sections that Congress is open to engaging and trying to come up with solutions.
What Didn't Work?
1. There's Still Voter Fatigue With the Congress
Punjab is a state where it is not difficult to mobilise people, if the cause is right. Even while the Yatra passed through Punjab, several protests have been underway in the state - from Sikh groups staging a sit-in roadblock on the Punjab-Chandigarh border demanding the release of political prisoners, to the farmers protest in Zira and the protest by displaced residents of Latifpura in Jalandhar.
The farmers protest even managed to get the Punjab government to order the closure of the liquor plant in Zira.
Unlike many other states, people of Punjab aren't averse to hitting the streets. But the Bharat Jodo Yatra didn't really see massive participation of common people. A majority of people we met who were walking with the Yatra were Congress workers or linked to the Congress in some way.
This despite the fact that issues like unemployment, communal harmony and federalism being raised by the Yatra do have resonance in Punjab.
It seems that while many in Punjab may have agreed with the message of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, they weren't particularly enthused by the messenger.
The Punjab electorate, particularly the rural Sikh voters, have been undergoing a major churn since first the 2015 sacrilege incidents and subsequent protests as well as the 2020-21 farmers' protest. There is a general atmosphere of dissatisfaction. AAP was the default beneficiary of this in the 2022 Assembly elections but there has been some decline in its support since then.
However, it is clear that despite some dissatisfaction with AAP, not many voters are keen on going back to the Congress. The gains have mainly been for the BJP among a section of urban Hindu voters and a larger revival of independent Panthic politics among a section of Sikh voters.
2. Absence of a Narrative
The Congress doesn't seem to have a clear narrative in Punjab presently. Leaders like Raja Warring and Ravneet Bittu seem to be recycling an old Congress strategy in Punjab of raising the "national security" issue and trying to consolidate the state's Hindu minority.
This narrative, on its own, can't really help Congress revive in Punjab. Even urban Hindu voters are unlikely to return to the party unless it wins back some Jatt Sikh support. And at the Lok Sabha level, BJP will be a much more important player among Hindus than it was in the Assembly polls.
To win back Jatt Sikh support, this 'national security' focused approach may be counterproductive.
3. Leadership Vacuum
The party is facing a leadership vacuum at the state level as a whole as well as in certain pockets.
One facet of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Punjab that many seem to have missed is how it didn't begin from the Haryana-Punjab border but about 40 km into Punjab, at Sirhind.
This was because the party's in-charge for Rajpura Hardyal Kamboj as well as his son, were missing in action. Some say this is because of a case he is facing. A lookout notice was issued against him and his son for allegedly abetting the suicide of a local journalist.
In several areas, the party is facing a similar leadership vacuum because its main leader has either defected or facing cases. In areas where the party has a strong leadership, the party did manage to gather crowds, such as in Jalandhar city, where the party has two sitting MLAs - Pargat Singh and Avtar Singh Junior alias Bawa Henry.
This vacuum may cost the party in the Lok Sabha elections. In Malwa, which accounts for eight Lok Sabha seats, the party has only two MLAs. And it won't be easy for the party to mobilise voters without sitting MLAs.
There is a vacuum at the state level also. Raja Warring is hardworking and hands-on in his approach. At the Yatra, he could be seen running around and personally directing party cadres. But he doesn't have a pan-Punjab stature and doesn't bring anything extra on board. In the end, a lot may depend on the Congress' ability to utilise leaders like Navjot Sidhu and Sukhpal Singh Khaira. Despite their shortcomings, both of them have a clean image and have gained some credibility by virtue of taking independent and pro-Punjab, pro-Sikh positions.
The spate of defections may continue as evident from the exit of Manpreet Badal. More may be on their way out by end of January. But more than the defections, the bigger milestones for the party would be the 'Haath se Haath Jodo Campaign' and upcoming elections to four municipal corporations: Ludhiana, Amritsar, Jalandhar and Patiala.