The 150-day march of Gandhi is over. Will it, however, reinvigorate Congress?
On the final day of his over 150-day cross-country "unity" march, hundreds of people defied the bitter Himalayan cold to gather in Srinagar, the largest city in Indian-administrated Kashmir, to support opposition leader Rahul Gandhi.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra, or Unite India March, was started on September 7, 2022, in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, and traveled through 14 states, passing through more than 70 districts.
The 52-year-old scion of India's most prominent political family observed a significant number of individuals - from major civil society members and activists to local officials and celebrities - trying to keep up with him throughout his journey covering a distance of about 3,500km (2,175 miles).
Political analysts characterized Gandhi's march as a last-ditch effort to revive the Congress Party's flagging fortunes before the expected national elections next year.
But for his fans, the march was an audacious attempt to heal the political and religious differences in the country, which they attribute to the policies of the BJP's Narendra Modi-led Hindu nationalist administration.
Uzma Sakib, 48, who traveled more than 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) by plane from the southern state of Telangana to participate in the march in her native state of Kashmir, said, "This is a march to unify the people of the country against intolerance and hatred."
Gandhi has returned as a person and a leader who can identify with and understand the suffering of the aam aadmi (ordinary man). And this is the kind of leader that our country requires, Sakib said from the Kashmir valley
He is our lone ray of hope.
Since India's independence in 1947, the Congress Party has been in power. However, since losing the 2014 national elections to the BJP and suffering a string of setbacks in state and municipal elections that followed, the Congress Party's power has steadily decreased.
Analysts blame the party's dismal election performances on its inability to shed the influence of the Gandhi family and its lack of a defined ideological framework. It presently maintains a clear majority in just three of India's 31 states and union territories.
The National Election Watch and the Association for Democratic Reforms report that 399 elective candidates left Congress between 2014 and 2021 to join other parties. The party lost 39 out of 49 state elections at that time.
And while many well-known Congress leaders have encountered public unhappiness over the years, it was under Rahul Gandhi's de facto leadership that the party's electoral gains reached historic lows in the 2014 and 2019 general elections, winning just 44 and 52 seats, out of 543, respectively. Rahul Gandhi is frequently depicted as an inept and reticent politician by a section of the Indian media.
Some analysts now claim that the march is the first, if very minor, move in the correct approach to rescue Congress and its scion from the political wilderness.
It's not a simple process. Rasheed Kidwai, a seasoned journalist and political analyst who has covered the Congress Party for decades, claimed that it takes leaders years to become recognized as national leaders. "Despite that, it is unorthodox what he [Rahul Gandhi] has able to do with this yatra."
Kidwai was eager to point out that the march might not be sufficient.
“At the end of the day, it’s the vote that matters – and that’s where the yatra has insurmountable challenges,” he said, noting that the BJP managed to increase its vote percentage from 31 percent in 2014 to 38 percent five years later.
“The job of a political party is to win elections. That is the barometer on which a party is assessed. How this yatra would prove for the electoral gains of the party needs to be seen,” he added.
However, neither the march's organizers nor its backers assert that it is especially intended to boost the party's electoral performance. The march, according to Congress, is intended to draw attention to the nation's "rampant unemployment and inflation, the politics of hate and division, and the over-centralization of the political system."
Salman Khurshid, a prominent Congress leader, said: "It is not a debate about who would win or lose; it is a fight against the attitude of hatred which dominates in our nation."
Khurshid acknowledged the party must step up efforts to spread its message but expressed confidence that the march had led to a change in the way the public viewed both Congress and Gandhi. “My political instinct says that people have started looking up to Rahul as someone who has the ability to draw the attention of people, not just in pockets, but right across the country,” he said.
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