Rahul Gandhi | Photo: ANI
Rahul Gandhi’s five months-long Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY), which covered 12 states and 4000 km, caught the nation’s attention for exvarious reasons. The t-shirt-clad and athletic 52-year-old's bounce that often turned into a sprint which drove his followers and security crazy; his stubble that grew into a bushy beard as days rolled by; the large number of ordinary men, women and kids or the celebrities who joined him; his impassioned call for love, and harmony which were radically posed in contrast to intolerance, bigotry and hate he accused the BJP symbolized. But to this writer, the most engaging BJY optic was the impromptu snowball fun fight between Rahul and Priyanka that marked the yatra’s fitting finale at Srinagar. Forget the barbs that it only proved that the childish Gandhi siblings never grow up. But, perhaps without even Rahul or Priyanka realizing it, the spectacle symbolized what BJY espoused- love, friendship, and innocence, the values now facing extinction from our political and social environment. Equally touching was Rahul’s spontaneous hug and kiss on the sister's cheek while the BJY entered Yogi's Uttar Pradesh, which the BJP leaders found so “un-Indian”!
India is not unfamiliar with padyatri politicians. From the original, self-proclaimed “Mr. Walker” of Dandi to the compulsive padyatri, former Prime minister Chandra Sekhar, or the Rath Yatri, Lal Krishna Advani who opened the muscular Hindutva advance or even our own Pinarayi Vijayan or Ramesh Chennithala who too had their pre-election Yatras, it has always been in the popular playbook of Indian leaders. Yet, at the risk of hyperbole, let me draw a parallel between that fistful of snow in Rahul’s hands at the chilly Srinagar and the lump of salt Gandhiji held at the sweltering Dandi beach 92 years ago. Indeed, the 25 days-long, Dandi March in which Gandhi walked 385 km with his followers to break colonial law shook the British empire to its foundation. It enlivened the freedom struggle, and led to the arrest of more than 90,000 men and women across the country, including Gandhi and Nehru. The world sat up and took notice of the unusual ways of the near-naked, diminutive man. Next year, Time magazine featured him as the Man of the Year on its cover for its New Year issue.
Rahul’s BJY might not have led to anything of that scale. But in terms of symbolism, it was straight out of the Gandhian armory. The Mahatma was a master when it came to using innocuous-looking symbols as the most potent weapons for mass mobilization and for terrifying the formidable colonial empire. A charkha, a piece of khadi cloth, or even the bare loincloth that he wore were his arms to lead a nation to freedom. Even many of his closest followers had thought in the beginning that a satyagraha or a swadeshi cloth could hardly harm mighty Britain. Not just that they found Gandhi's “irrational fads” sorely insufficient, but even stumbling blocks to the national movement. Many believed that Gandhi’s moral war would be futile against a brutal and amoral regime. Yet, history proved differently.
Many feel the BJY could also be inconsequential beyond the optics. It's symbolism may prove not too effective in the short run. He also has said his yatra was not for electoral gains or organizational resurgence. BJY need not be a factor in the general elections of 2024 or the coming states’ polls.
Yet, it's a step in altering the discourse. Its appeal to love, friendship and harmony appears to acquire a new currency in a society getting increasingly browbeaten by unending hate-mongering.
The signs of a changing narrative are already visible. BJP is thinking of moving away from its anti-Muslim image, which it unabashedly wore on its sleeve until recently. For the first time, India’s ruling party doesn’t have a single Muslim among its MPs in the parliament or MLAs in UP where the community forms 20% of the population. But now Modi is talking about outreach to minorities even though the eye is on 2024. Though BJP essentially targets the minorities among Muslims like the Bohras and Pashmandas, even this is unprecedented. RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagavat has initiated a discussion with Muslim intelligentsia and is to meet in February with Muslim leaders, including from Kerala, and representatives of organizations like Jama-at-Islami Hind and Darul Uloom Deoband. BJP’s Minority Morcha has identified 60 Muslim-dominated Lok Sabha seats, including Rahul’s Wayanad, to launch a four-month campaign under which 60 ambassadors would be chosen to carry out the message that Modi is not their enemy. On Republic Day, BJP’s Uttar Pradesh unit launched a special campaign to woo Muslims. RSS is reported to have asked its ranks to refrain from hate-spewing. The old Common Sense that love, not hate, could win more votes, may return.
Besides the “love offensive”, the BJY succeeded on some other counts also. It asserted Congress as the only pan-Indian Opposition party. Rahul almost shed his widespread image of a "Pappu" or a reluctant politician. He has also re-established himself as the Number One in the party where the high-profile “G23” gang has been leading a serious campaign to replace Rahul.
Yet, is mere symbolism enough against the might of the BJP and Hindutva? For Gandhi, symbols were only the weapons to mobilize the masses and launch nationwide agitations. But what are Congress's plans for such mobilization post-BJY? Nothing is seen or heard about just as yet. The organization continues to be dormant even in states like Kerala, where it is relatively strong. The much-touted organizational elections continue to remain a dream. Despite his impressive will to undertake massive walkathons, Rahul remains disinterested in addressing such issues.
But BJY's most glaring weakness was its near silence on a concrete and practical economic and social alternative apart from emotional appeals to love and inclusivity. Rahul never went beyond tangential references to inequality, unemployment, crony capitalism, etc., growing under BJP. Luckily, he appears to have moved away from the soft-Hindu line. If Congress wants to beat the BJP in being Hindu, they can do it not by going soft but only by a harder Hindu line, as Kejriwal often shows. But since Congress won’t be able to take that line, the only answer is to be a true alternative to BJP. This is where Rahul and his advisers would do well to re-read the great ideological alternatives his great-grandfather and grandmother so strategically launched to alter the narratives massively, vanquish their Opponents (both outside and inside the party), and assert themselves in the hearts of the millions of ordinary Indians. Why should India root for BJP's B team with a similar economic and social agenda while the A team is alive and kicking?