For nearly 5 months, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been travelling through several states, on foot, self-admittedly in an attempt to rekindle bonds of love and compassion in the country. The Bharat Jodo Yatra will culminate in a rally on 30 January in Kashmir’s Srinagar, the march’s final destination. But beyond the ostensible messaging of love, the Bharat Jodo Yatra was ultimately an attempt at salvaging the Congress and helping improve its standing after a series of lackluster performances in many elections over the years.
The underpinning of almost every political statement made by Congress leaders throughout this yatra has been for it to position itself as the primary opposition party which will lead the bandwagon of ‘opposition unity’ against the BJP-government.
Congress’ communications head and senior leader Jairam Ramesh told the media last week that the Congress must be at the fulcrum of any viable opposition alliance.
“Congress must be the pivot or fulcrum of any opposition alliance, and, without the Congress, no opposition alliance is relevant and meaningful,” he said.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge has written to 21 “like-minded” political parties to attend the Bharat Jodo Yatra’s concluding ceremony. While most are yet to respond with a confirmation, the Congress’ efforts will only truly bear fruition if the parties that aren’t already its friendly allies end up joining the event.
Political Parties Invited for Concluding Ceremony, and Those That Aren’t
For the final event, the Congress has invited its allies like the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Other parties like the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), National Conference (NC), People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Communist Party of India (CPI) have also been extended an invitation.
Notably, according to sources, the parties which have been left out are Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), Bharat Rashtra Samiti (formerly TRS), and Ghulam Nabi Azad’s Democratic Progressive Azad Party (DPAP).
Last week, the Janata Dal United (JDU) Rajiv Ranjan Singh alias Lalan Singh wrote back to Kharge saying he won’t be able to attend the event due to a prior commitment, but added that “the need of the hour is a unified opposition” and that the JDU “expects that the Indian National Congress takes appropriate steps in this direction.”
This signals that while opposition parties want to work towards a united opposition, most are hesitant in letting it seem like the Congress is leading that bid—for that will make the Congress the de facto face of the opposition.
Parties Unwilling to Play Second-Fiddle to Congress
An analysis of all the non-Congress politicians who joined Rahul Gandhi in his 5-month long yatra across 12 states reflects that barring long-standing allies, there are only a few other parties willing to stand behind the Congress as a united opposition.
JDU leader and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, for instance, had earlier in January called the Bharat Jodo Yatra “Congress’ internal matter.” “We will not join this yatra. Let them complete their programme, then we will sit together and discuss about the opposition unity,” he had told the media.
Kumar is busy holding his own ‘Samadhan Yatra’ across the length and breadth of Bihar, and would be unwilling to let that be and instead share the limelight with Gandhi.
Poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who was previously a member of the JDU, has also derided the Bharat Jodo Yatra, saying that he too has been walking for several kilometers as part of his ‘Jan Suraaj’ Abhiyan in Bihar. “But I do not want to show it off as evidence of my physical fitness," Kishor had told PTI.
Then, JDU ally RJD’s leader Tejashwi Yadav too has maintained his distance from the yatra. Earlier in an interview with The Hindu, the deputy CM had said that “wherever regional parties are stronger as in Bihar, the Congress should let us sit in the driving seat.” Days later, Yadav was sent an invite by the Congress to join its yatra, but he did not show up.
The opposition fault-lines came to the fore in Uttar Pradesh as well, where opposition parties refused to participate in the yatra, including Akhilesh Yadav’s SP and Mayawati’s BSP.
Prior to being invited, Akhilesh had even dismissed the yatra, saying that the “Congress and BJP are the same.” In response, Rahul Gandhi had said that the SP doesn’t have a national framework to contest elections.
Interestingly, SP’s ally, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) has come out in support of the yatra. While Jayant Chaudhary didn’t join the yatra himself, a delegation of RLD leaders did so, and the leader tweeted praising the yatra.
Some New Admirers
Interestingly, while SP-BSP stayed away from the yatra in Uttar Pradesh, National Conference leader and former Jammu and Kashmir CM Farooq Abdullah joined the same in Ghaziabad. In Srinagar, his son and also former CM Omar Abdullah also walked alongside Gandhi.
This made the NC one of the only three political parties not in an alliance with Congress in any state, to join the yatra. The other two being Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP and Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam’s (MNM).
Haasan’s entry, and vociferous support for Gandhi and his endeavor in a rousing speech at Delhi’s Red Fort garnered a fair amount of attention.
Besides these, all other political leaders who joined the yatra are Congress’ allies in various states. In Maharashtra, Shiv Sena’s Aaditya Thackeray joined Gandhi, as did many other members of the party. Sanjay Raut joined the Yatra in Jammu. While NCP’s Sharad Pawar did not join the yatra himself, citing ill-health, other top leaders of the party did participate in the march including Jayant Patil, Supriya Sule and Jitendra Awhad. Tamil Nadu CM and DMK leader M.K. Stalin launched the yatra in September, by handing over the tricolor to Gandhi.
These moments of camaraderie, while coming from allies, are still a significant feat as that fortifies the coalitions they share with the Congress and enables the latter to position itself as a more formidable partner.
TMC's Absence So Far Rings Loud
However, the most successful feat for the Congress will be if its numero uno competition within the opposition ranks, the TMC joins the yatra’s concluding ceremony. So far, TMC leader and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee has mostly remained mum on yatra, but the march has received some praise from other top leaders of the party. Veteran actor and TMC’s MP Shatrugan Sinha praised the yatra emphatically. “There has never been such a journey in the country before. Rahul’s personality will inspire the youth of the country,” he previously said.
TMC MLA Chiranjit Chakraborty called the Yatra was “a very good initiative” to “unite India.”
TMC spokesperson Sougata Roy tried to distance the leaders’ remarks from the party position, saying they were made in a personal capacity. But by then the Congress party’s state chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury began questioning why Mamata was shying away from praising the yatra.
“There's 'Mo-Mo', an understanding between Mamata Banerjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji. Mamata ji can't do anything that'll upset Modi ji. When Modi ji says- India 'Congress-free', then Mamata ji also says Congress should be removed from Bengal...Many leaders have been appreciating Bharat Jodo Yatra,but her,” Chowdhury told ANI.
Banerjee has never in the past acquiesced to letting Congress play the big brother, most recently when it refused to rally behind Margaret Alva for the opposition’s vice-president candidate, saying the Congress had picked her unilaterally. This was after the opposition parties had jointly backed Yashwant Sinha, a TMC leader, as their President candidate.
In the 2021 West Bengal state elections, the Congress emerged with zero seats, only fueling TMC’s confidence as it tried to present itself as one of the few opposition parties capable of single-handedly keeping the BJP out of a state. In such a scenario, joining the yatra might threaten everything that Banerjee has been working towards in the last few years: an attempt to become the face of the Indian opposition.
It is clear that the Congress’ aim is to make itself the obvious choice for the face of a united opposition—one that it doesn’t have to fight and nudge to secure—and the yatra is a means to that end. But it looks like even once the yatra is over, the party will have to continue fighting harder to convince opposition parties across the spectrum to let it take on that mantle.