Sonu Sharma said he spent nearly Rs 1 crore making arrangements for the Bharat Jodo Yatra. It is quite likely he did spend a lot of money.

Sharma, a Congress worker from the state of Madhya Pradesh, is a man with many business interests and lofty political ambitions. He owns a fuel pump at Sanwer on the Indore-Ujjain highway. On the morning of November 27, it acted as the starting point for day 83 of the 150-day-long cross-country march from Kanyakumari to Kashmir by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. After walking a couple of kilometres, Gandhi and his fellow travellers stopped for breakfast at a school run by Sharma before pacing ahead northwards towards the holy city of Ujjain.

I met Sharma on a nippy January morning at the same fuelling station. He recalled the day of the yatra with evident fondness. “When I arrived at the pump at around 5 in the morning, the whole place, the highway, was already full of people,” he said. “Rahul ji’s job was to show presence on the ground and he has done that. Karyakarta me jaan phoonk di poori – he’s energised the cadre.”

Soon, though, he struck a more despondent note. “It has been more than a month since the yatra passed through Madhya Pradesh,” he pointed out. “But our state leadership is yet to even assemble and take stock of what went well, what didn’t.”

He continued, “If you think it is just [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi we are against, you are mistaken. We are being eaten up from inside by factionalism.”

Sonu Sharma said the Congress was being "eaten up from inside by factionalism". Photo: Arunabh Saikia

‘Yes, we are in the game’

Over the last couple of weeks, I travelled through 14 districts across the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh that the Bharat Jodo Yatra had passed through. Apart from ordinary voters, I met scores of Congress workers, most of them middle-to-low rung functionaries in the party.

Most of them had strikingly similar assessments of where the Congress party stood following the yatra, widely seen as one of the grand old party’s most radical attempts in recent times to revive its sinking fortunes.

The yatra, most workers I met seemed to believe, had provided the fillip that the Congress machinery desperately needed – “it’s made us believe that yes, we are in the game,” a worker in Rajasthan’s Bundi told me. But whether it would lead to tangible gains, they said, was contingent on whether the party’s squabbling state leadership could get their act together.

A group of Congress workers in Rajasthan's Dausa district. Photo: Arunabh Saikia

Rowing in Rajasthan

In Rajasthan’s Sawai Madhopur, Dasarath Meena spoke of how the very-public acrimony between chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his former deputy Sachin Pilot threatened to undo the momentum that the yatra had provided to the party.

“There’s genuine excitement among the workers now – something we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Meena, who is a nominated councillor from the party in the Sawai Madhopur municipality. “But all of this will amount to nothing if Pilot and Gehlot keep fighting.”

In July 2020, the Congress government in Rajasthan came close to collapsing when Pilot along with 18 MLAs broke ranks with Gehlot following allegations that Pilot had offered bribes to his fellow legislators in the Congress to join the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The high command stepped in to broker a truce, but tensions continue to animate Gehlot and Pilot’s relationship. In 2022, when Gehlot announced his candidature for the post of the Congress’ national president – an election he did not finally end up contesting – he refused to hand over the reins to Pilot.

Brijlal Singh Rathod, the general secretary of the party in Sawai Madhopur, was candid. “Truth to be told, the last five years have gone by with just the two of them fighting,” he said.

While both Pilot and Gehlot walked in tandem with Gandhi during the Rajasthan leg of the yatra, within weeks, they were back training their guns at each other in public. Earlier this month, Gehlot spoke about a “big corona[virus]” entering the party, which was seen as a reference to Pilot who, for his part, has mounted several not-so-veiled public attacks on the chief minister of late.

A vice-president of the Rajasthan unit of the Congress I met in Dausa said, requesting anonymity: “This fight means two sets of workers, each trying to push its own message. As a party, that is disastrous for us because we can’t really take one coherent message to our voters.”

Indeed, many workers I met openly pledged allegiance to one or the other side, warning of “dire consequences” if the party chose to instead favour the other side.

In Dausa – home to the Pilot family – several Congress functionaries I met accused Gehlot of sabotaging the prospects of candidates backed by Pilot in the last Lok Sabha election. “If the party doesn’t hand over the reins to Sachin ji, it will suffer,” said one.

Dasarath Meena said public acrimony between chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his former deputy Sachin Pilot threatened to undo the momentum that the yatra had provided to the party. Photo: Arunabh Saikia

‘Gutbaazi’ in Madhya Pradesh

In adjoining Madhya Pradesh, “gutbaazi” or groupism runs equally rampant. Here the two power centres are Digvijay Singh and Kamal Nath, both former chief ministers of the state.

Aabid Khan, a booth-level worker in Ujjain, spelt it out. Said Khan: “For the longest time, workers were sleeping, but seeing our leader do this big yatra has changed that. However, it is also true that our organisation remains weak.”

This is because, he said, “genuine workers are undermined”. “Only if you are in one of the two camps will you be rewarded,” complained Khan. “And it’s a constant fight between these two camps.”

Headless in Haryana

In Haryana, the party is plagued by the same problem. As a worker in Panipat quipped, “In the other states, there are two power centres, here there are at least four.”

The state unit of the Haryana Congress has witnessed an enduring power struggle with the main competing players being Bhupinder Singh Hooda (and his son Deepender Singh Hooda), Kumari Selja, Kiran Chaudhary and Randeep Surejwala.

The factionalism is so intense that the party has not been able to form district committees in eight years now. “The yatra has ensured that workers now have a leader they are willing to back and fight for,” said Sanjay Agarwal, who was the party’s candidate from the Panipat city seat in the previous Assembly election. “But they need a framework.”

“Unfortunately in Haryana we have no organisation,” he added, “because every big leader wants it to populate with their people.”

Who gets the votes?

However, some argue that intra-party power squabbles infest all political parties, including the BJP, and it was not as big a concern as is often made out to be while dissecting the Congress.

For instance, Anil Dev, who heads the Congress’ grassroots frontal outfit, Seva Dal, in western Uttar Pradesh, argued that it was personalities that attracted voters. “The BJP wins because of Modi – that’s a fact well established,” Dev said.

The yatra, Dev contended, had made Gandhi a brand to reckon with, and the Congress would automatically benefit from that. “As a matter of fact, the Congress has always been a leader-based party,” he said. “The Nehru family tag should not be seen as baggage, instead we should leverage it because that’s what people in India vote for.”

But not many within the party seem to agree with that thesis.

Khan, the Ujjain-based booth-level worker, explained: “Ultimately, I am the person bringing the voter from their homes to the booth and if I am not doing my job properly because I feel undermined and trapped in the party’s internal politics, then that final push is not going to be there.”

“This last-level contact with the voter is where the BJP does really well,” Khan added.

A functionary in the party’s Haryana unit agreed. “Without a well-oiled organisation, you cannot win elections in India,” he said. “The Congress karyakarta [worker] is currently full of energy, but there is no one to give them direction.”

Anil Dev heads the Congress’ grassroots frontal outfit, Seva Dal, in western Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Arunabh Saikia

A new lease of life

Even so, the party’s workers on the ground certainly seem to have found fresh purpose.

In Madhya Pradesh’s Agar Malwa, Lila Devi who heads the Congress’ district women wing, said she felt “inspired” after seeing Gandhi “work so hard”. “I am doing whatever it takes to convert people from my Banjara samaj from BJP to Congress,” she told me when we met at a grubby tea stall in the Agar market. “And I am starting to see results.”

Lila Devi heads the Congress’ district women wing in Madhya Pradesh’s Agar Malwa. Photo: Arunabh Saikia

As proof, she fished out her phone to show me a video. The audio was barely audible amid the din of the evening tea-stall chatter, but it was clear it was some sort of a pledge-taking ceremony. A group of around 50 people, mostly women, could be heard saying in unison, “We promise to not vote for the BJP from today and be with the Congress.”

“I organised this last week,” she said, beaming. “There’s been a lot of change after the yatra. We are working very hard.”

Sharma, the businessman-politician, said there were ample examples of grassroot workers stepping up the ante in wake of the yatra. “Karyakarta full charge pe hai, ek tarike se aag lag gayi hai – the workers are fired up,” he said. “Now it is for the state leadership to step up.”

Also read: Bharat Jodo Yatra is ending. What do voters think about it?