Ever since he quit the post of Congress president in a huff in 2019 after losing the Lok Sabha election to Narendra Modi’s BJP for the second time in a row, Rahul Gandhi has been hunting for a meaningful political role for himself.
It will be interesting to see whether the 146 days he spent on the road walking more than 4000 kilometres from Kanyakumari to Srinagar, and interacting with a hugely diverse lot of people, have given him clarity on an existential question that has plagued him from the time he first took the political plunge in 2004.
Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Impact
Some inferences can be drawn from the manner in which Rahul Gandhi conducted himself during the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
One is his impressive physical stamina and determination. Both seem to have overwhelmed all those he engaged with during the course of his walkathon.
The second, is his easy manner with people. Whether an elderly lady somewhere in rural Kerala or a small child in Telangana or a farm worker in the heart of Maharashtra or a Raghuram Rajan or a Farooq Abdullah, Rahul Gandhi charmed and won hearts.
The third is his success in finally shaking off the "Pappu" tag pasted on him by the BJP. By staying the course, and even adding to his itinerary with the last-minute inclusion of western UP to his route, he seems to have convinced admirers and detractors alike, most of all his own party workers, that he is not the reluctant part-time politician he was made out to be.
If the Bharat Jodo Yatra was meant to be a radical image make-over, Rahul has done it with aplomb, earning praise from even the Hindu right wing including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and trustees of the Ram temple.
Bharat Jodo’s Multifarious Outreach
The fourth is his desire to fashion himself as an ideologue who is above the petty grind of daily politics. Notice the long beard favoured by gurus and the likes, the positioning as the antithesis of the right wing/Modi/RSS on ideological issues and the insistence on an apolitical branding by inviting former bureaucrats, intellectuals and religious leaders including the head priest of the Ram temple to join the yatra.
Rahul Gandhi has made it clear that he is waging an ideological war, not fighting a political battle to win elections.
The fifth flows from this. He showed a resolute determination to stay away from campaigns for assembly elections that were on while he was on the road. He finally did go to Gujarat for a quick poll rally but only because the pressure became too much to bear. But he flatly refused to campaign in Himachal Pradesh.
The sixth is his silence on knotty organisational issues like the Gehlot-Pilot war in Rajasthan or the Tharoor versus the rest battle in Kerala.
Although it’s said that decisions on these internal dissensions which are tearing the party apart will be taken now that the Bharat Jodo Yatra is over, it is increasingly apparent that Rahul Gandhi has little or no interest in managing organisational matters, building an election war machine to rival the BJP or raising a political structure that will make the Congress relevant again.
Can Rahul Gandhi’s Strategy Guide the Congress in Polls?
A major reason for appointing a non-Gandhi Congress president was to relieve Rahul Gandhi of the headache of running the party organisation. As long as people he is comfortable with, are in key positions, Rahul Gandhi is content to leave the nitty-gritty to others with sister Priyanka playing a key role in decision-making.
However, an inevitable question arises from all this: what next? Rahul Gandhi’s marathon yatra may have generated goodwill for him and enthused the party cadre, but every Congress worker, man and woman wants to know whether this huge exercise will win elections for the party and bring it back to power.
The rub lies here. There are nine state polls in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha election. In almost all of them, the Congress will go head-to-head against the BJP.
The only measure of success in politics is an election victory. The cadre that is today enthused by the Bharat Jodo Yatra could just as quickly lose faith in Rahul Gandhi if the Congress loses the upcoming assembly elections.
The real test for Rahul Gandhi begins now then. If indeed his primary interest lies in meeting people and building a national mood against the BJP, then he will have to follow the footsteps of yesteryear stalwarts.
Can Bharat Jodo Unite the Opposition Against BJP?
There was Jayaprakash Narayan who whipped up popular anger against Indira Gandhi and led to her defeat in 1977. There was Devi Lal who devoted huge time and energy to bring the opposition together to defeat Rajiv Gandhi in 1989.
He even has the example of his mother Sonia Gandhi who worked behind-the-scenes with then CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet to craft an opposition strategy against the Vajpayee-led BJP. Together, they narrowly pipped the BJP to the victory post which led to the historic formation of the first Congress-led coalition government at the centre. It must be noted that none of them aspired to be Prime Minister or became PM of the government they helped to create. Will Rahul follow in their footsteps?
Time will tell what lessons Rahul Gandhi has learnt from the Bharat Jodo Yatra. But the clock is ticking for him. The 2024 polls are not far off. Whether he likes it or not, his role in shaping a unified opposition challenge to Modi and the BJP will influence the outcome of that battle.
(Arati R Jerath is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)