It has always been easy to critique Rahul Gandhi. By virtue of being the scion of the political dynasty that has given India three Prime Ministers, he has owed his prominence in Indian politics to the accident of birth rather than personal merit. His uneven, often ineffectual performance over the course of eighteen or so years in politics has not helped matters. Political analysts and cartoonists have had a field day with Rahul Gandhi’s mishaps. The nickname Pappu has been repeatedly invoked by Modi devotees and used to mock the political abilities of the Congress MP. In the wake of successive debacles of the Congress party in two consecutive rounds of general elections (2014 and 2019) very little was expected of him.
Rahul Gandhi seemed well on the way to becoming a political nonentity. Take for instance the stinging rebuke administered by Gardiner Harris (New York Times chief of the South Asia Bureau) in the NDTV show The Big Fight (“Rise of PM Modi, fall of the Gandhis? January 31, 2015) a few months after Narendra Modi’s rise to power: “Rahul is not a politician. He is not good at this job…He doesn’t do anything. He is terrible. He is not a politician…The Congress party is going to die if they continue to promote Rahul as the man who is going to lead because he is going to lead it to its death.” The studio audience reacted to the journalist’s outburst by clapping loudly. Many years have gone by since that TV programme. The Modi-led regime has gone from strength to strength thanks to adroit propaganda and has consolidated its stranglehold on all formerly democratic institutions. Communal (anti-Muslim) hatred propagated by social media and the electronic media has resulted in what could be irreversible radicalization in a wide swathe of the Hindu majority. The persecution of religious minorities particularly the beleaguered Muslim minority proceeds at breakneck speed. The Congress in the meantime has continued its steady decline. Only in two states does the party currently hold the reins of government. Until very recently the judgement of the New York Times journalist and others of his ilk appeared unimpeachable.
Almost overnight it seems a tectonic shift has happened with the Bharat Jodo Yatra, a padyatra or foot march from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, taking on unexpected momentum. The aim of the yatra is “to address rampant unemployment & inflation, the politics of hate and division and the over-centralisation of our political system.” The yatra was launched in Kanyakumari on September 7 and attracted little or no notice at first. October 2 or Gandhi Jayanti became the turning point of sorts for the yatra and for Rahul Gandhi. Images and videos of Rahul Gandhi addressing a rapt Mysuru crowd in the rain on Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary went viral. They drew rapturous applause from journalists and citizens who have borne despairing witness to the vicious, Modi-led anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist state’s constantly intensifying assault on minority rights and rule of law, on civil rights and freedom of expression in short on secular, pluralist democracy. Indeed the convergence between the birth anniversary of the Father of the Nation and the rebirth of Rahul Gandhi is an arresting one. To note this is not to imply the intervention of an occult dimension. It turns out that when the Bharat Jodo Yatra was conceived in May ‘the idea was to “go back to what Mahatma Gandhi would do”‘ (Lahiri, Ishadrita, The Print, 7 October 2022). Thus an association was established between the ethics and politics of Gandhiji and Bharat Jodo Yatra. To speak of the Mahatma and Gandhi Jayanti is to be reminded of the beautiful bhajan “Vaishnava jana toh tene kahiye joh peeda parayi jane re” (a true devotee of Vishnu understands the pain of others). The Bharat Jodo Yatra posts showing Rahul Gandhi mingling with young and old from all walks of life and giving patient and empathetic hearing to narratives of struggle could not be more in keeping with the message of the bhajan.
Before Bharat Jodo Yatra had completed the first month of its arduous schedule, the unforeseen had taken place. All along the worst nightmare of the Hindutva forces has been the emergence of a charismatic and dedicated leader in the political opposition. As Rahul Gandhi strides (or sprints) forward to keep his tryst with Nehruvian and Gandhian ideals of pluralist, democratic India, he is rapidly evolving into the kind of leader who is feared by the Sangh Parivar. His performance has received unstinting praise (“Right from the beginning of the Yatra, Rahul Gandhi is showing enormous physical and emotional stamina laced with a degree of honesty conveying a message of love”) even when the same analyst has expressed scepticism as to Bharat Jodo’s impact on the neoliberal politics and electoral performance of the Congress (Shivasundar, Sabrang India, 3 October 2022). Only massive desertion of the BJP by voters can improve the electoral fortunes of the Congress–to state the obvious. Still without succumbing to magical thinking, it is easy to start asking if the improbable can happen a second time.
Rahul Gandhi of Bharat Jodo has done away with the soft Hindutva that has been apparent in recent years in the publicity given exclusively to visits paid to Hindu temples by Congress leaders. In the course of the yatra Rahul Gandhi has visited places of worship identified with three of the religions of India–Christianity, Hinduism, Islam–and thereby sent an important message to the hounded and beleaguered religious minorities. The concomitant affirmation of secular and pluralist democracy is equally significant. In the course of the yatra, the Congress leader has truly come into his own. He has found the language and the medium for mounting a challenge to the rabidly communal Hindutva forces. Rahul Gandhi’s condemnation of the divisiveness of the RSS and BJP and their politics of hatred has been unremitting and unsparing. It is the drumbeat that accompanies his march. By affirming an idea of India based on peace, love and equality and the harmonious coexistence of diverse groups, Rahul Gandhi has succeeded in reinstating the identification of the Congress with secular, pluralist democracy.
Bharat Jodo originates in the arena of electoral politics. The yatra is organized by a political entity, the Indian National Congress, and the leading participants are Congress politicians. All the same Bharat Jodo is developing into the natural successor of the great civil society movements that blossomed in recent years: the protests against the anti-Muslim and anti-constitutional Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 and related proposals for a National Registry of Citizens and the year-long farmers protests against the anti-farmer, corporate-friendly farm laws of 2020. Both movements succeeded in recruiting civil society participation that went well beyond their immediate base, and they received international plaudits and attention that shed unflattering light on the Modi-led regime. In one of his Bharat Jodo posts Rahul Gandhi expressed his admiration for the farmers movement and acknowledged his indebtedness to the latter. In turn when the farmers protests were in progress (November 20-December 21) some of the members spoke of being inspired by the Shaheen Bagh dharna. The chain of causation and the connections are there for all to see. The format of the yatra allows free mingling between the political leadership and citizens who want to show their support or voice their grievances. Because Bharat Jodo is a foot march in the blistering heat, the overall effort includes the deliberate espousal of suffering. This was brought out by Rahul Gandhi in his press conference in Karnataka. One is reminded that the farmers kept year-long vigil and defied the worst that the changing seasons could inflict on them, and that the Shaheen Bagh dharna began and continued in the coldest winter the capital had seen in decades. The efflorescence of creative, artistic and performative energy that went hand in hand with the civil society protests is becoming evident in Bharat Jodo as well.
The insightful, ever reliable analyst Asim Ali has called Bharat Jodo the biggest mass outreach program of the Congress in at least three decades (The Telegraph, 9 October 2022). In all probability the fortunes of the yatra will be decisive in determining whether the Congress–on its own or as part of a coalition–will stand a fighting chance in General Elections 2024. As huge crowds gather along the Bharat Jodo route, as the message of love and unity, of unwavering affirmation of secular, pluralist democracy emanate from the yatra winding its way through India, as delightful moments of laughter and camaraderie are brought out, it is easy to delude oneself into believing in the imminent collapse of the towering edifice of anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-minority hatred erected by the Sangh Parivar. To thus underestimate the hold of the destructive forces is to fall into a dangerous trap.
On Gandhi Jayanti two processions were taken out in Udupi, Karnataka (Bhat, Prajwal, The News Minute, 3 October 2022). The smaller of the two had participants from different religions. The procession affirmed the ideal of peaceful coexistence of diverse religions by visiting a temple, a mosque and a church and concluding at Gandhi Bhavan. The second of the two processions outnumbered the first by a factor of fifty or so. Participants chanted slogans of hatred, made inflammatory speeches, brandished weapons and called for the establishment of Hindu Rashtra. The contrast between the two Gandhi Jayanti processions is a rough measure of Hindutva ideology’s toxic hold and of the extent to which the Hindu majority has been radicalized. Can Bharat Jodo Yatra and allied forces surmount the seemingly insurmountable? This much is clear at this time–that the fortunes of the yatra will be followed with anguish, with hope and fear, by those who believe that minority rights and civil rights should be protected, that religious minorities should not be persecuted, that dissent should not be criminalized, that wealth should not be concentrated in the hands of the favored billionaires of the regime in power, in short that the elected government of the day should uphold the values of secular, pluralist democracy.
Radha Surya is a freelance writer. Her articles have appeared on Znet and Countercurrents.