With the mantra – 'Don't fear... Fear causes hatred' – Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra headed for Ujjain on the seventh day of its journey in Madhya Pradesh.
Over the last one week, the crowds have been pouring in, with people looking visibly enthused. But can the yatra give Rahul Gandhi a makeover in the Hindi heartland? Here are five key takeaways from the Madhya Pradesh leg of the ongoing march.
1. Focus on Tribal & Dalit Communities – The Kingmakers in MP
Since Wednesday, 23 November – the day the yatra started its Madhya Pradesh leg – Gandhi's focus has been primarily on the tribal and Dalit communities.
Routes were changed and halts were altered to ensure that the Congress leader made it to the birthplace of tribal leader 'Tantya Mama', in Barauda Ahir village in Khandwa district on Thursday, 24 November.
On Constitution Day (26 November), the yatra was well-timed to reach Mhow, Indore, the birthplace of Dr BR Ambedkar. Here, Gandhi's speech focussed on the oppression of Dalits.
Speaking to the public in Mhow, Rahul Gandhi alleged that the BJP-RSS duo have been trying to destroy the Constitution by 'stealth'. He further said:
“…they (BJP-RSS) will do this first. They fold hands in front of Ambedkar and then try to destroy the Constitution, tear it apart... for which Babasaheb devoted his life...”Rahul Gandhi
Dalit and tribal communities together constitute around 36 percent of the total population in Madhya Pradesh. It's an established pattern that whoever wins their votes, makes the government in the state.
Madhya Pradesh is home to the highest tribal population in the country – and 47 Assembly seats are reserved for the tribal community. Their votes determine the winner in close to a third of Madhya Pradesh's 230 Assembly seats.
In 2003, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) overthrew the Congress, it won 37 out of the total 41 reserved seats. In 2008, however, delimitation increased the reserved tribal seats from 41 to 47 – and the BJP won in 31 seats.
In the successive election, in 2013, the BJP retained its total seat tally of 31, however, in 2018 it could only win 16 seats and lost the power to the Congress albeit for only 15 months.
2. More Impact on Cadre Than Common Voters
According to experts The Quint spoke to, the yatra has so far had more impact on the party's cadre than voters and it has been "a much-needed morale booster" for them.
"The rural population and most of semi-urban residents were once loyal voters of Congress, and many among them were true cadres, but over time they became BJP supporters due to two factors – first, the growing nationalistic surge and misinformation. Second, the lack of senior leaders' presence on the ground. This is going to see a major change, and a large base of cadre could return to the Congress."A senior journalist who wanted to remain anonymous
Another journalist-turned-political analyst, Deepak Tiwari, who is also the Regional Editor (Hindi) at the Global Investigative Journalism Network, told The Quint:
"When the yatra hadn't reached Madhya Pradesh, we were unsure of its impact on the locals because the elections in the state are a year away. But, through this week, the public support for Rahul Gandhi has changed a lot of perspectives, including mine. We can see that the overall image of 'unavailability of an option beyond Modi' is starting to crack. Not entirely, not right now, but a dent is being made."
He further said that the cadre now has a "tangible memory" of its leader walking alongside them, talking to common people, eating, sleeping in their neighbourhood. "Rahul Gandhi's image of an elite politician is breaking away," he added.
3. Rahul's Yatra And The 'Temple Run' in MP
Through the Yatra, the Congress seems to have worked on another aspect of Rahul Gandhi's image - the perception that he isn't "pro-Hindu enough".
With his visit to Omkareshwar, worshiping at the banks of river Narmada, and Ujjain's Mahakal temple, the Congress is clearly trying to strengthen its base in the majority community.
"This is a good way to subtly counter the perception that has been built around Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. The Hindu voter in the state has been flooded with fake narratives, misleading videos, like the rest of the country, and now that they are seeing him (Rahul Gandhi) live, hearing him live, interacting with him. This will help the Congress to some extent."A senior journalist based in Madhya Pradesh
He further said the clarity in Rahul Gandhi's positioning will help him correct the image that has been created around him by the media and social media.
4. 'Internal Fighting' Could 'Undo' the Yatra's Impact
Time and again the divide in the Congress' Madhya Pradesh unit has come to fore. There are multiple factions, multiple leaders and the centre of power also keeps shifting. The same became visible during the initial days of Rahul's yatra in MP.
Top leaders, including a prominent Dalit face from the party such as Sajjan Singh Verma, were missing from action, while smaller nuisance over food and crowd management gave glimpses of the internal divisions.
A party source who is part of the yatra told The Quint that the divide was clearly seen as soon as the yatra entered Madhya Pradesh. Though both the top leaders of the party in the state - Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh - presented a united front, their followers spilled the beans about the divide.
"When the quality of food became an issue in the initial days, all the blame was put on one leader. When questions were raised over crowd management, MLAs from different factions were seen arguing about who brought how many people. Such things clearly showed the divide and this is where the Congress needs to consolidate things,"
5. Responsibility on State Leaders to Capitalise
The 'Narendra Modi vs Rahul Gandhi' narrative went against the latter most acutely in the Hindi heartland and Madhya Pradesh is no exception. The Congress could win just one seat in Madhya Pradesh in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But experts say that the Yatra has the potential to address this.
The youth turned up in large numbers at the Yatra and at Rahul Gandhi's public meeting in Indore, just to see him. The Congress had fared poorly among this demographic during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, despite getting a great deal of youth support during the Assembly elections only a few months earlier.
"What was interesting to see, is that people in the age group of 16-35 years turned up at the Jan Sabha. This is the age group that has been making and sharing memes on how Rahul Gandhi is unfit as a leader. This will surely have an impact on the level of sensitivity towards him."the journalist on condition of anonymity
However, the journalist further added that the ball is now in the court of state leaders to capitalise on these emotions and strengthen their base ahead of the Assembly elections in 2023.