Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra could be a watershed moment in the Indian politics.
After a pit stop in Delhi, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi embarked on the last leg of the ambitious 3700 kilometer Bharat Jodo Yatra which will culminate in Srinagar. Gandhi attracted big crowds during his long journey and also got substantial coverage in the media and also on social media, but it was after he entered in a T-shirt into a bitterly cold Delhi on December 24, 2022, that the pretentious commentators—afraid of walking out of the comfort of their heated rooms—took notice. It was then that they realized the enormity of what Rahul had physically achieved and its deep implications on the national politics.
Now we find the narrative shifting rapidly. Suddenly, young Rahul is seen as a serious prime ministerial prospect that can take on the ageing Narendra Modi. This change in mood is having an impact on the ground. Take, for instance, the response of Akhilesh Yadav of Samajvadi Party and Mayawati of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Initially, both of them called Gandhi names and turned down his offer to join the yatra when it briefly traversed through Western Uttar Pradesh. In fact, Yadav reportedly called the Congress as being no different from BJP. The venom was quite uncharacteristic of an otherwise amiable Yadav, but he may have his own reasons. A few days later, it seems wiser counsel prevailed opon Yadav and he was gentler in his response to Rahul’s invitation to join the yatra. He congratulated the Congress leader for the success of his yatra and hoped the march would achieve its stated objectives. Even BSP leader Mayawati followed the same path – refused to join the yatra, but was conciliatory in her response to the invitation letter. It was clear that the two regional leaders are keeping their options open for 2024 elections.
Similar warmth was at display from the deputy Chief Minister of Haryana, Dushyant Chautala, who praised Rahul’s long and arduous journey and stated matter-of-factly that it was not easy what Rahul was doing. This is a marked departure from the bare-knuckle hostility displayed by the BJP that does not want to show any sympathy for his long walk to promote national unity. It fears that the support it has built around a constructed hatred for the Gandhis and the Congress party would begin to diminish if BJP leadership shows humane values of appreciation for Rahul’s hard work and resilience. Expectedly they have latched on a trivial detail of how he is braving the extreme North Indian winter in just a T-shirt. They are throwing this punch as they know the ramification of his Spartan dressing if it gets compared with that of PM Narendra Modi who changes his dress with every shift of the camera angle. They recognize that any let up in aggression or display of weakness will erode their support base when the economy is showing signs of weakness and quality of governance is increasingly seen to be shoddy.
Those who are pinning their hopes around Rahul standing up as a challenger to Modi must recognize that the nationalist politicians are harder to topple than the normal democratic one. Their support base is built on the majority community and its flawed reading of history, which feeds their grievances against the privileged few (Gandhis for instance). Usually, they are pretty unshakable in their conviction. Those who plan to oust the BJP would have to look at Brazil and the return of its President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for inspiration. Lula was jailed on charges of corruption and was facing a formidable nationalist challenger in President Jair Bolsonaro, who was largely illiterate and extremely aggressive in articulating his vision of the country. He stole many ideas from the left parties to endear himself to the poor. Lula realized that despite the vocal support of the articulate middle class, he would find it difficult to beat a person like Bolsonaro, who openly preached masculine majoritarianism and authoritarianism. To beat him, he built a 10-party Coalition of Hope and accommodated parties far distant from him ideologically. They all realized that they could engage in regular politics only if Bolsanaro was defeated. His supporters believed in fake news routinely furnished on WhatsApp and YouTube channels. In fact, only India has a higher percentage of people believing in the disinformation dished out on WhatsApp. Expectedly, the outcome in both the countries is largely similar.
Lula sought to show that the corruption in Workers’ Party was no different from what existed in Bolsonaro’s flock. In fact one of the scoops that hurt the prospects of his Liberal Party was the manner in which Bolsonaro’s family bought 51 properties in hard cash – a practice normally seen among money launderers. Despite the rainbow coalition, Lula won by a whisker. It seemed that Bolsanaro had mastered the art of garnering support of the masses in a manner that many journalists and pollsters could not read. That was the reason the nationalist leader did not accept the verdict.
In India, Rahul Gandhi, would have to realize that in many ways the reality in India is far more complicated than Brazil. Since the Rafale scam, there has been no exposure of large scale corruption in the BJP that diminishes Congress’s corrupt past. BJP has managed to keep a tight control over what gets carried in the media. Till that stranglehold is loosened, the BJP will benefit from its lily-white image. The control on media is the reason that issues of national security—encroachment by China—do not get enough traction.
As BJP is seen as the party of the majority community, every other party seeking the support of the minorities, like the Congress or the SP, is seen as anti-Hindu. This is a difficult challenge to master, but state elections point to the fact that BJP still does not get the votes of the entire Hindu community. There are plenty of local factors that determine the voting behavior. That is the reason that Modi is trying to tell the voters that a candidate is not important and they should think that they are voting for him. While this pitch worked in Gujarat, in Himachal Pradesh where he gave the first call that all votes are for him, the BJP lost badly.
Congress and Rahul would draw comfort from Himachal results and all the states where the BJP lost in the past few years as it readies for the 9-state elections in 2023. A win in majority of the states would tell us who will rule Delhi in 2024.
Sanjay Kapoor is the editor of the Delhi-based Hardnews magazine and general secretary of the Editors Guild of India.