Bharat Jodo Yatra Last ditch effort to energize Congress party for 2024 general elections

Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi

Finally, the principal Opposition party Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi have hit the road in what promises to be a long, gruelling walkathon of 3570 km, from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. Christened Bharat Jodo Yatra, it remains to be seen whether this long walk from the southernmost tip of the country across the Nation helps the Congress electorally or not. This is an entirely different and debatable question, but what the yatra does is to infuse some life into its moribund structure and demoralized cadres.
Can the Congress perform worse than its dismal show in 2019 ? Not even its worst critics are sure of this happening, and in fact, the tone and tenor and aggression it is showing on the ground, and in the issues of the people–price rise, unemployment, misuse of Central agencies and alleged inaction against corruption of the ruling party, and National security in the face of reported Chinese incursions – is finding some listeners among the common people. If the reaction of the people in Tamil Nadu, the starting point of the Yatra is any indication. But this would be an improper way to judge the yatra, which has only just begun, also because Rahul Gandhi remains immensely popular in South India and in Tamil Nadu and Kerala is more popular than the Prime Minister, which explains the reaction of the masses to his walkathon.
The focused attack on Rahul Gandhi and his yatra from the ruling BJP does seem to indicate that it is taking this move of the Congress party a bit seriously– as this gives the Congress a chance to embark on a mass contact programme. More important, it has got support from civil society and NGOs active in different areas who act as influencers as well, due to their own contact with the masses.
This is something that the “part-time politician” as the Opposition dismisses Rahul Gandhi should have done longtime ago–going by the immense political and electoral benefits that accrued to all the yatris before him from across the political spectrum–NT Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh who ousted the Congress from its bastion in just nine months of his yatra, YS Rajashekhara Reddy and later his son Jaganmohan Reddy (Odarpu yatra) walked across Andhra Pradesh and reaped political benefits. Who can forget the different yatras that the BJP leaders, Dr Murali Manohar Joshi, and later LK Advani embarked upon, which played a significant role in taking the BJP from its lowest tally of 2 in Lok Sabha to power, leading a coalition Government and establish it as a major pole in Indian politics ?
A walkathon lasting nearly five months gives a chance to Rahul Gandhi to show to the Nation that he can take up a lengthy political exercise and dispel the impression that he is a part-time reluctant politician who vanishes in between.
This is perhaps the reason why Congress and Rahul Gandhi have embarked upon this longest mass contact programme that the party has taken up in a long, long time. Now the route that the Bharat Jodo Yatra–passing through 12 States and two Union Territories–is taking is also significant in that it passes through areas where the Congress still has some strength left and can take on the BJP. The intention is clear, to build and energize its party structures and cadres ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Even the Congress knows that it is not able to take on the BJP Nationally and may not be spreading its resources too thin fighting in every seat in all States.
Its survival instinct would kick in and is reasonable to understand that the Congress would be playing ball with the rest of the Opposition in trying to ensure a one-on-one fight with the BJP in as many Constituencies as possible. Especially at a time when influential Congress leaders are leaving the party in droves, and either joining the BJP or causing damage to the Congress with their criticism and abuse of the party, that helps in building the overall narrative of the BJP that the Congress is the party responsible for everything that is wrong in the country.
The strong language and barbs used by the BJP to dismiss Rahul Gandhi’s yatra perhaps betrays a nervousness that it could make its work harder in the 2024 general elections where the BJP takes on the Congress in a direct contest in few States.
Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, in fact have intelligently chosen the theme of the yatra–Bharat Jodo (Unite India)–and are building up a narrative that the ruling BJP was dividing India on a host of issues and the Congress was trying to unite all of India and all its diversity through love and understanding. A constant critic of the BJP and Sangh Parivar’s professed Hindutva, Rahul Gandhi speaks about diversity, liberalism and federalism which still has some appeal in sections of the voters. Will Rahul Gandhi be able to achieve what he set out to achieve–inspire and incentivize the Congress worker through his walkathon. He will have plenty of opportunity to interact with the people all along the route, and what would be important for him, and his party is how much he will be able to convince the admirers and adversaries that he means business, this time around.
Yes, he has been raising all the right issues that an Opposition leader should, and forcefully at that, but his image is what is hindering and blunting its efficacy. Especially, when there is a perception about the Congress party and its alleged corruption and dynastic preferences, it becomes doubly difficult for Rahul Gandhi to build a narrative that is convincing and powerful enough to make the messaging count. Both the content, and its delivery are important.
Of late one does witness an aggression and even efficacy to some extent in the activities of the Congress party spokespersons, who appear on television after doing homework and are able to counter the BJP on issues and corner the Government–which is what an Opposition party is supposed to do.
From here, it is a long journey for the Congress to first be sure of retaining the 52 seats it won in the last general elections and aim of at least doubling the figure. And the more seats it wins, in the eventuality of BJP falling below the magic number, the more chances it would have to bargain with the rest of the Opposition and be a significant player.
But then, the BJP and its electoral machine have been working for the 2024 general elections for a long time and its strategy must already be in place. If the Opposition can come together, only then it might pose bit of a challenge to the BJP. Or else, the BJP will romp home, but with a relatively stronger Congress party on the Opposition benches.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer and Hindustan Times.  He can be reached on [email protected] and Twitter handle @kvlakshman