Rahul Gandhi, Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, and the power of walking

While yatras have propelled parties to power in the past, will Rahul’s second attempt overcome internal divisions and translate steps into votes?

Published : Feb 08, 2024 09:09 IST - 10 MINS READ

A Congress supporter during Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, in Katihar, Bihar, on January 31.

A Congress supporter during Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, in Katihar, Bihar, on January 31. | Photo Credit: PTI

As the Congress battles with its back to the wall, Rahul Gandhi has chosen to hit the streets a second time, before the 2024 general election, a battle that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, now a giant election machine, seems well placed to win for the third time.

After the six-month-long, 4,500-kilometre Bharat Jodo Yatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir last year, Rahul is leading another road trip, this time called the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra (BJNY), which began on January 14 from Manipur and is set to conclude on March 20 in Mumbai. This is a new course for the Congress party, which has over the last few decades avoided taking to the streets.

Sonia Gandhi’s tenure as party president had seen two major brain-storming sessions—the Panchmarhi conclave in 1998 and the Shimla conclave in 2003—in which the Congress strategised on programmes and alliances. However, the party was missing in action on the streets.

The challenge this time is bigger, given the Congress’ two successive debacles with historically low Lok Sabha seats—44 seats with 19.3 per cent of the votes in 2014 and 52 seats with 19.5 per cent votes in 2019.

French novelist Marcel Proust wrote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” The desperation in the Congress camp is growing loud, and many leaders who were perceived to be close to Rahul (Jyotiraditya Scindia, Ashok Tanwar, Jitin Prasada, Milind Deora) have quit the party. So have the old-timers, such as former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and media manager Tom Vadakkan, who swore their loyalty to Sonia.

Whether the two successive yatras and Rahul’s targeted mass connect programmes will help the age-old political party revive its fortunes is the million-dollar question.

Rasheed Kidwai, political analyst and author of 24 Akbar Road, which presents a short history of the people behind the rise and fall of the Congress, says that Rahul’s second phase of the yatra seems “ill-timed” and is doing more damage than good to him, his party, and the cause of opposition unity.

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“For a practising politician, yatras are meant to bring greater good and electoral dividends. In BJNY, the reverse is happening, leading to the collapse of the INDIA bloc and bitterness among the constituents,” Kidwai told Frontline. “Rahul’s long absence from Delhi implied the near halt of electoral preparations for 2024, reducing Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge’s grace and heft that he was to carry within and outside the Congress. With Sonia voluntarily keeping herself out of alliance building and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra travelling abroad, the Gandhis seem to be abdicating their political leadership and responsibility. In short, BJNY is politically suicidal for the grand old party, and a real possibility of a vertical split in May 2024 is staring ahead.”

As the yatra was under way, the INDIA bloc received a jolt with key partner Janata Dal (United), led by Nitish Kumar, snapping ties and joining hands with the BJP in Bihar, and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress staying in INDIA but deciding to go it alone in West Bengal.

Rahul Gandhi in Purnea, Bihar, the nerve centre of the JP movement, on January 30.

Rahul Gandhi in Purnea, Bihar, the nerve centre of the JP movement, on January 30. | Photo Credit: PTI

As the yatra reached Purnea in Bihar, the cradle of social justice politics and the nerve centre of the JP movement—its “Sampoorna Kranti” call led to the ouster of Indira Gandhi in 1977—Kharge, in a written message, said: “The coming Lok Sabha election is being fought to save the Constitution and democracy.”

The Congress, which refused the invitation to attend the Ram temple consecration ceremony on January 22, calling it not a religious but a political event of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is flagging education, employment, poverty eradication, and healthcare as real issues, with a layering of identity politics—Rahul has pitched a caste census as an “x-ray” of society, which will determine the share of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalits in power and resources in proportion to their population.

Highlights
  • Rahul Gandhi is leading the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, a road trip from Manipur to Mumbai, covering 6,200 km in 85 districts in 14 States.
  • The Congress party is flagging education, employment, poverty eradication, and healthcare as real issues, with a layering of identity politics.
  • Yatras have propelled parties to power; they have been instrumental in consolidating Hindus in favour of a Ram Mandir and the BJP.

Yatras in the past

Yatras in the past have propelled parties to power. The BJP won just two Lok Sabha seats with 7.4 per cent votes in 1984 and 83 seats with 11.4 per cent votes in 1989. But its exponential growth came after L.K. Advani’s 1990 rath yatra seeking the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya.

The yatra, which started from Somnath, ended in Bihar (Samastipur) after his arrest by Lalu Prasad’s Janata Dal government. Though the yatra could not reach Ayodhya as planned, it did achieve the objective of consolidating Hindus in favour of a Ram Mandir as well as the BJP. The BJP took forward the Hindutva ideology and its campaign accused the Congress of Muslim appeasement. The VHP ratcheted up the Ramjanmabhoomi issue, and the party has not looked back since.

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The BJP went on to become the pivot of Indian politics, forming five BJP-led governments since then—two short-lived and three full-term. The party marked a meteoric rise with 120 seats in 1991 and 161 seats in 1996.

Then, in 1991, came the then BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi’s much-hyped Ekta Yatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, which ended with the hoisting of the tricolour in January 1992 amid tight security at Lal Chowk in Srinagar, then a hotbed of terrorism. The yatra, aimed at sending a message to terror outfits and promoting national integration, helped the BJP highlight its nationalism campaign.

Two decades later, the party organised a 14-day yatra from Kolkata to Lal Chowk to unfurl the national flag in the Kashmir Valley in 2011. Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur, who was then heading the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, led the event attended by top BJP leaders, including Joshi and Advani.

However, not every BJP yatra has been a success. The most glaring failure was the Bharat Uday Yatra launched in 2004. The India Shining campaign did not cut ice with the voters and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP lost the 2004 Lok Sabha election.

At Kanyakumari,  where Janata Party leader Chandra Shekhar began his 4,260-km padayatra to Raj Ghat in Delhi from January 6, 1983.

At Kanyakumari, where Janata Party leader Chandra Shekhar began his 4,260-km padayatra to Raj Ghat in Delhi from January 6, 1983. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Although socialist leader Chandra Shekhar’s Bharat Yatra in 1983 from Kanyakumari to Rajghat in New Delhi, which covered 4,260 km from January 6 to June 25, earned him the moniker of “Marathon Man”, it did not translate into votes. His yatra was held to criticise Indira Gandhi’s policies, but her assassination in 1984 resulted in a sympathy wave, and the Congress decimated the entire opposition. Chandra Shekhar’s Janata Party won just 10 seats, with he himself losing his Ballia seat to a Congress candidate.

A year after the massive victory, in 1985, the Congress took out a Sandesh Yatra, a decision taken by Rajiv Gandhi in the Mumbai plenary. The three-month whirlwind tour was the last major padayatra (march) for the Congress until the beginning of the Rahul era in the party during UPA-II. After the Congress debacle in the 1989 Lok Sabha election, Rajiv launched a Bharat Yatra in 1990, but it was mostly by train.

Yatras were also part of Gandhian socialist Jayaprakash Narayan’s Sampoorna Kranti campaign in 1974, which changed the course of Indian politics and brought the first non-Congress government to power in 1977.

According to Ajay Gudavarthy, associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, “yatra” is a collective on the move and symbolises a journey that connects the past with the present. It connects a memory to the present making of identities.

“The BJP, under L.K. Advani, gave it a religious symbolism with the rath yatra and converted it into a retributive response to a perceived and constructed historical injury. It converted the imagery of Ram from a maryada purush to a militant god. With the telecast of the serial Ramayan in the backdrop it managed to convert the collective consciousness into an emergent Hindu identity.”

The politics of yatras

On the impact of Rahul’s yatra politics, Gudavarthy said the Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) was an attempt to offset retributive politics by that of compassion and mohabbat (love). “In the light of the fact that the opposition has no avenue to reach out to people, be it Parliament or media, the yatra became an event to be amidst people.

“Ideally, the presence of public representatives among people should be a continuous process and not an event. The BJY reflected the point that if parties mobilise, people are willing to respond to alternative narratives. However, BJY 1 and now BJY 2 haven’t succeeded in conveying any concrete message or programme. It is precariously located between the political/electoral and the social/collective. Its electoral impact is still uncertain. It requires to become programmatic and assure people of certain welfarism beyond what BJP has promised,” he said.

Rahul is no stranger to yatras; his Kisan Sandesh Padayatra from Bhatta Parsaul in 2011 in support of farmers protesting against land acquisition in the then Bahujan Samaj Party-ruled Uttar Pradesh hogged headlines. It culminated in the passing of The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.

One of the most successful padayatras at the State level was the one led by Congress leader Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy in Andhra Pradesh in 2003. It propelled the Congress to power in the 2004 Assembly election, defeating N. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party.

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After stepping into his father’s shoes, Jagan Mohan Reddy took out a 3,500-km Praja Sankalpa Yatra on foot and his YSR Congress Party won the 2019 election with a huge mandate.

In 2017, Madhya Pradesh Congress leader Digvijay Singh undertook the Narmada Parikrama Yatra, calling it a non-political exercise. However, the mass connect did contribute to the Congress’ victory in the 2018 Assembly election, ousting the 15-year-old BJP government led by Shivraj Singh Chouhan.

In 2017, BJP leader Amit Shah embarked on a Janaraksha Yatra in Kerala’s Kannur against the alleged “jehadi-red terror”, a format replicated in Mangaluru in Karnataka in 2018. It brought no major political gains for the BJP in Kerala, although the party highlighted that RSS workers had been killed in the State as a result of planned political violence.

The 1,000-km Azadi Gaurav Yatra from the Gandhi Ashram in Gujarat to Raj Ghat in Delhi and the Gandhi Sandesh Yatra from Champaran in Bihar to Beliaghata in Kolkata in 2022 are two of the more recent yatras organised by the Congress.

In the run-up to the 2022 Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress announced a Pratigya Yatra, led by Priyanka, covering 12,000 km across the State’s 403 constituencies. But the Congress’ “Ladki Hoon Lad Sakti Hoon” (“I am a girl, and can fight”) campaign proved a damp squib, and the party suffered a crushing defeat in that election.

The ongoing Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra will cover 6,200 km in 85 districts in 14 States: Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Meghalaya, West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra.

How much each extra step will translate into votes will eventually decide whether the BJNY was a smart political manoeuvre or just another attempt to save a sinking ship.

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