Welcome to The India Fix by Shoaib Daniyal, a newsletter on Indian politics. This week we have a special edition for our readers, as I come back after walking with Rahul Gandhi’s Kanyakumari-to-Kashmir Bharat Jodo Yatra in Karnataka.
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One of the top comments on an October 1 YouTube video of a Rahul Gandhi speech during the Bharat Jodo Yatra is a rather blunt appraisal of the Congress leader. “Rahul Gandhi’s popularity has grown rapidly,” writes Satya Sarthak Manohari. “A tough journey from pappu to popularity.”
The Congress might wince at the use of “pappu” – Hindi slang for simpleton, weaponised by the Bharatiya Janata Party against Rahul Gandhi. But in essence, the Congress would be quite chuffed with Manohari’s review. This is exactly what the Bharat Jodo Yatra aims to achieve: by bypassing the media and directly hitting the streets, Gandhi hopes to reinvent his image in the run up to the 2024 elections.
While it is still early days – 80% of the march is left – there are indications that it is working.
There is little doubt that Rahul Gandhi has a perception problem. Part of this is of his own making, given his poor skills when speaking to the media. In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, for example, Gandhi gave a disastrous television interview to Arnab Goswami that, in the words of former Congressman Sanjay Jha, led to his “annihilation” and sparked the use of the tag “pappu” by the BJP.
Another part of it has also to do with the power tussles within the Congress, a party that a weakening Gandhi family now struggles to control. In September, for example, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot led a shocking (and it seems, successful) rebellion against the party high command’s moves to replace him. At present, Rahul Gandhi is struggling to maneuver his party’s presidential polls to ensure a winning candidate that can both command the party’s respect but also take direction from him.
However, part of Gandhi’s perception problem also has to do with the BJP’s massive social media reach as well as a large ecosystem of friendly television channels that have relentlessly attacked Gandhi, often using fake news. For example, the myth that Gandhi once spoke of a factory that would turn potatoes to gold has been pushed so hard, one senior organiser of the Bharat Jodo Yatra even told this journalist that his own die-hard, Congress-supporting family believed it.
Literally, a “unite India march”, the Bharat Jodo yatra will see Gandhi and a group of around 120 Congress workers walk all the way from Kanyakumari in the southern tip of India to the northernmost region of Kashmir. A journey of 3,500 km over the course of five months, the march will highlight, in the Congress’ own words, “social polarisation, economic inequalities and political centralisation”. Starting on September 7, the march has now crossed three states and is in Karnataka.
The aim of this massive effort is straightforward: to transform Rahul Gandhi’s image. The yatra will do this by hitting the streets in an effort to bypass the media completely (which the Congress views as hopelessly opposed to it).
“We are demolishing the factory of lies constructed by the BJP about Rahul Gandhi over the past 10 years,” general secretary of All India Congress Committee and key yatra strategist, KC Venugopal told Scroll.in as the yatra camped in a village in Karnataka on October 2. “Now the villagers of India are seeing for themselves who Rahul Gandhi is.”
From Mahatma to farm laws
The biggest weapon in Rahul Gandhi’s arsenal is Mahatma Gandhi’s formula of personal sacrifice – in the form of an enormously long trek – mixed with mass contact. “I believe in tapasya [penance],” Gandhi said in a press conference on Saturday. “So I wanted an element of suffering for myself in this communication with people”.
Gandhi’s use of this imagery could be a smart political tool. “Indian culture deeply respects political tools like the padyatra,” Yogendra Yadav, former psephologist and leader of Swaraj India, a political party also taking part in the yatra, told Scroll.in right before the start of the day’s march on October 1. “Even if someone opposes you, they will at least invite you in for dinner” if you are on a padyatra.
Gandhi’s yatra comes after several instances of street protests hitting the Modi government hard. The movement to oppose the Citizenship Amendment Act, a new law that introduced a religious criterion for Indian citizenship, managed to mobilise lakhs of people across India from December 2019 to March 2020. The immediate impact: hurried attempts at damage control by the prime minister, who contradicted his own party manifesto to deny plans for a national citizenship verification exercise. Nearly three years after it was passed, the Citizenship Amendment Act is yet to be implemented.
An even greater victory was gained by farmers protesting three new laws that aimed to reduce state control over the agricultural sector and open it up to large corporations. The protests lasting from September 2020 to November 2021, mostly massed at the borders of Delhi, forced Narendra Modi to announce that he would take back the laws. He did so after a televised apology to farmers.
Gaurav Pandhi, national media coordinator with the Bharat Jodo yatra, drew an explicit parallel with the farmer protest. “People respected the fact that the farmers sat there for so long – even those who might have opposed the farmers,” he told Scroll.in during the yatra as it entered Karnataka. “We see the same thing happening here. The BJP keeps on raising ridiculous controversies but our only response is to keep on walking. People appreciate this. After a while, we see people have forgotten BJP’s criticism and started to listen to what Rahul Gandhi is saying.”
Rebuilding the party
A month into the yatra, it is clear that the idea of direct mass contact has borne fruit. On October 2, an image of Rahul Gandhi addressing yatris through driving rain in Mysore went viral. Four days later, another photo of Gandhi tying his mother, Sonia Gandhi’s shoelaces raced through social media. Even well-known journalists from major Hindi news channels who are seen to lean towards the BJP approvingly tweeted out the photos, marking a rare win for the Congress in the “godi” or lapdog media, as journalist Ravish Kumar has described this section of the press.
The rejuvenation of Rahul Gandhi’s image via the Bharat Jodo Yatra is also having a significant impact on the Congress rank-and-file itself, depressed after years of getting pummelled at the hustings. (The party is currently is in power in only two states, its smallest spread ever). “The entire Congress cadre has been electrified all over India,” Venugopal told Scroll.in. “We need to have a strong follow up to maintain this tempo.”
This is very clear while walking with the yatris and observing their morale. “The Bharat Jodo Yatra will rebuild the Congress party,” claimed Uma Shankar, a Congress worker from Bengaluru, walking with Rahul Gandhi while the yatra crossed Karnataka. “We will win both Karnataka and national elections thanks to the wave this generates.”
Fumbling the charge
While Shankar’s enthusiastic prediction remains to be tested, it is a fact that the momentum of the yatra has seen the BJP, for the first time in nearly a decade, struggle to attack Rahul Gandhi. Fumbling for issues, the BJP has fallen back upon a familiar tactic: painting the Congress as a so-called minority appeaser.
On September 11, the BJP attacked Gandhi for meeting with a Tamil pastor. “This ‘Hindu Hatred’ of the Congress in general and Rahul in particular is no more a clandestine affair,” said the BJP’s spokesperson Sambit Patra. On September 20, Patra again called Gandhi’s photo walking with a Muslim girl an example of “appeasement”. On October 1, the BJP put out ads thatreached back seven decades to blame Nehru for Partition, as a way to attack the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
Notably, most of these attacks have fallen by the wayside, with even BJP-leaning media failing to pick them up. Also helping the Congress is general anger with the ruling BJP over the state of the economy. In Karnataka, as Scroll.in walked with the yatra, Gandhi’s message of corruption and price rises struck a chord with the large crowds that gathered each time the Congress’ convoy stopped.
“This government will be gone soon because everything has become so expensive, only the government is getting richer,” Prabhu, a resident of Bendagalli village in Karnataka told Scroll.in as he waited with his son on his shoulders to catch a glimpse of Gandhi walking past.
However, it remains to be seen if Gandhi can envoke a similar response up north, where, compared to Karnataka, the Congress organisation is weaker and the BJP more entrenched.
With Narendra Modi and the BJP forming the most powerful Union government in decades and the Congress at its weakest ever, the Grand Old Party will be hoping that the yatra provides enough momentum for Rahul Gandhi to launch a credible campaign in the run up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.