Neelam Berwa stood out among the large group of women digging a trench under the mild winter sun at a worksite under India’s rural employment guarantee scheme. She spoke confidently, peppering her Hindi with English words.

“Hum to rally ke saath mein bhi gaye the – we even went along with the rally,” she said, when I asked her if she had seen the Congress’ Bharat Jodo Yatra pass through the nearby highway. “Hum ne to bahut enjoy kiya, Rahul bhaiyya se shake hand kiya – we enjoyed ourselves a lot, we shook hands with Rahul.”

Berwa lives in Lalsot, a town in Rajasthan’s Dausa district. Rahul Gandhi crossed the district on December 15, as part of the 3,570-km walk traversing the length of the country from Kanyakumari to Kashmir.

All of Berwa’s coworkers – most of them rural Dalit women – seemed to share her admiration for Gandhi.

But what was it that they really liked about him?

“He speaks about mehengai – inflation – and how after Modi ji has come, the poor like us have become even poorer and the rich richer,” offered the older Dhanwanti Berwa, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“That is true,” joined in many of the the other women listening quietly till then, vigorously nodding their heads in agreement.

But Neelam was quick to interrupt: “It is not that Modi ji is bad.” She invoked the time when Indian fighter jets in 2019 crossed the line of control and, according to the government, struck a Jaish-e-Mohammed training camp in Pakistan’s Balakot in retaliation for an attack that had left 40 paramilitary soldiers dead in Jammu and Kashmir.

“Ghus ke maara tha Pakistanion ko,” Neelam said. “We entered Pakistani territory and killed them.”

“No one had ever done that before,” she continued. “Wo achcha laga. I really liked that.”

Much noise, one clear takeaway

As Rahul Gandhi’s five-month-long India expedition nears its end, people across the country are inevitably asking: what did it achieve?

In January, I retraced the route of the yatra in the Hindi heartland – areas that it had passed through in November and December – to try and pick up some clues from the ground. As political observers have often pointed out, if the Congress wants to challenge the BJP, it must regain lost ground in India’s populous Hindi-speaking belt.

I travelled northwards from Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone district all the way till Rajasthan’s Dausa. Along the way came the districts of Khandwa, Indore, Ujjain and Agar Malwa in Madhya Pradesh; in Rajasthan, I passed through the districts of Kota, Bundi, Tonk and Sawai Madhopur. I also went to a couple of districts that the yatra had passed through in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.

The signal from the ground was shrouded in noise. People often said contradictory things – appreciation for Gandhi would very often be followed by an endorsement for Modi.

Even so, one thing stood out: a fairly wide-ranging consensus – barring among those steeped in Hindutva politics – that the press has been too harsh on Gandhi and he is perhaps not the “pappu” or bumbling fool as portrayed by a vast section of the media.

‘Powerful man; big leader’

Consider this: In Jaithal, a village in Madhya Pradesh’s Ujjain district, I met Jitendra Rathod, a farmer who claimed he had never voted for the Congress. But he was candid in admitting that he was perhaps wrong about Gandhi – he had formed a negative impression about him based on what he had seen on television news. “If you ask me today, I have no hesitation in saying that after Modi, the biggest leader in India is Rahul Gandhi,” said Rathod.

Similarly, in Indore’s Ambachandan village, Arun Kumawat, another self-professed Modi supporter, said seeing Rahul Gandhi in flesh and blood made him realise the “pappu” characterisation was the BJP’s “mobile marketing”. “Takat to hai usme, dikh gaya woh,” he said. “It’s clear that he is a powerful man. We have seen it with our own eyes this time – the way he walked, the big crowds that came to see him.”

This is a view that many BJP workers I met also did not dispute. In Mhau, Mukesh Yadav, a booth-level worker of the BJP, was initially dismissive of the yatra when I asked him what he thought of it. “It’s like any other person walking past our village,” he said.

A cup of tea later, though, he opened up. “Calling him pappu is unfair,” he said. “Bada neta toh hai woh – he is certainly a big leader.”

Jitendra Rathod, a BJP supporter, said he had formed a wrong impression of Rahul Gandhi based on the media's portrayal.

A reassurance

On the other hand, for the Congress’ more loyal supporters, the yatra seems to have been an affirmation of sorts that they have an able leader.

In Haryana’s Panipat, Mintu Kashyap, a daily wage labourer who claimed to have always voted for the Congress except in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, said Gandhi had finally lived up to his family’s name with the yatra. “He’s finally shown that he is a worthy successor to Indira,” said Kashyap, referring to Gandhi’s grandmother and former prime minister, Indira Gandhi.

Rishiraj Meena, a farmer in Kotri, a tiny village in Rajasthan’s Tonk, said the yatra had proved that “he’s someone who really cares about the public”. “Modi se upar ho gaya woh Rahul – Rahul’s stature has exceeded Modi’s,” said Meena, a loyal Congress voter.

As a mid-rung Congress leader in Uttar Pradesh put it: “Earlier, there was sort of an embarrassment, hesitation, whatever you choose to call it, to be associated with him, now that’s over for good.”

Mukesh Yadav, a booth-level worker of the BJP, said calling Rahul Gandhi "pappu" was "unfair".

The ‘stronger leader’

The Bharat Jodo Yatra may have indeed changed many people’s perception about Rahul Gandhi – but it seems to have done little to dent Modi’s image.

While many non-partisan voters I met acknowledged Gandhi’s new found charisma, they said it paled in the face of Modi’s flamboyance.

Rahul Chaudhary, a young Jat farmer in Baghpat’s Katha village said while he was aware that “the media manipulates Rahul’s statements”, he believed Modi was “still superior”.

“He is a stronger leader,” Chaudhary insisted.

Chaudhary was hardly the only one who invoked Modi’s “strongman” image during my travels to reason that Rahul Gandhi still had a fair distance to go before being able to challenge Modi.

Such people would invariably cite three developments under Modi to make their point: the revocation of Article 370 from Jammu and Kashmir, the outlawing of the Islamic practice of “triple talaq”, or instant divorce, and the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.

Incidentally, the last two were the handiwork of India’s Supreme Court. Yet, for many people, they would not have been possible had Modi not had been at the helm. As Sachin Bhargava, a resident of Khargone’s Barwaha said, “Modi did what he had to.”

Even Congress workers admit in private that while the yatra may have helped bridge the gulf between the two leaders, Modi’s stature remained several notches higher than Gandhi’s. “Rahul can’t really give takkar [challenge] to Modi at the national level,” said a Congress functionary in Haryana, echoing what I heard from many people within the party.

Rahul Chaudhary, a young Jat farmer in Baghpat’s Katha village said while he was aware that “the media manipulates Rahul’s statements”, he believed Modi was “still superior”.

Modi as PM, but not BJP in the state

The Haryana Congress leader explained, “It’s because elections at the central level are now no longer about governance but about the emotional issues that Modi has mastered the art of leveraging.”

There appeared to be some truth to this diagnosis: a lot of support for Modi seemed to be driven by nationalistic fervour rather than tangible benefits. For instance, many people refer to the supposed rise of India’s stature in global forums as their reason for continuing to back Modi as the prime minister. The Centre’s welfare populism, a big draw among rural voters until quite recently, seems to have greatly lost its sheen in the face of punishing inflation.

Many voters, in fact, would rather have non-BJP governments at the state level to do the actual governance work.

In Rajasthan’s Bagri, for instance, I met Dharmendra Jain, who said he would continue to back Modi nationally because he could take the “big decisions” and not back down. But at the same time, he said he wanted the Congress to stay in power in Rajasthan because he thought Ashok Gehlot had largely been able to deliver on his promises.

In Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, too, I came across several people who wanted the Congress to come back to power in the state, but passionately made the case for Modi as prime minister. Their rationale: “India’s image” benefited from Modi being the prime minister.

Dharmendra Jain wants Narendra Modi as prime minister but wants a Congress government in Rajasthan where he lives.

Larger purpose failed?

Though that may seem like not all bad news for the Congress, it perhaps calls into question the accomplishments of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. It was, after all, in Rahul Gandhi’s words, an exercise to “awaken people” to the erosion of democratic and inclusive values in the country that the Congress believes has happened in the Modi era.

On the ground, though, that idea barely has any currency. Few Hindus seem to have any objection to the alleged rise of majoritarianism under Modi as long as prices of essential commodities stay under control.

Even many of the Congress’ own leaders don’t seem to be entirely sold on Gandhi’s so-called ideological war on Modi. “Bharat Jodo is basically party jodo,” said Ram Vilas Sharma, a veteran leader of the party in Rajasthan’s Dausa. “The country is already one, we just need to unite the Congress and that is what Rahul ji is trying to do.”