The year 2023 has been an eventful period for the former Congress president. In many ways, Brand Rahul has turned a corner in the pre-election year.
The year started with the conclusion of the most monumental of his efforts at reinventing himself and stamping his authority on the party that was facing a crisis of leadership and challenge from within and an assault from the outside by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And, it had to be a padyatra, which harked back to the tradition of Mohandas Gandhi’s walks during the freedom movement. It had the signature of Rahul Gandhi on it, as it reversed the popular phrase “Kashmir to Kanyakumari” into “Kanyakumari to Kashmir”. This is no secret that Rahul finds southern India more amenable to his idea of India and sees it as a bulwark against the BJP’s conception of the country.
The Message in Walking
The yatra’s name, its route and messaging, and the goals it was meant to achieve operated at two levels. First, the Congress and Rahul needed to reclaim nationalism from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, something it had underplayed during the United Progressive Alliance era and later. That the Nehruvian legacy of modern nationalism stood in stark opposition to the BJP’s idea of right-wing nationalism and needed to be preserved and projected proactively dawned upon the Congress leadership after a long delay. But, when it did, the Bharat Jodo Yatra became its apt vehicle to the finish line.
Srivatsa Y.B., a Congress functionary in Rahul’s office, feels that the yatra achieved many things for the party, its workers and Rahul, and the act of reclaiming nationalism stood out. “The Bharat Jodo Yatra was the reclaiming of the nationalism space that the BJP had distorted against the Congress. This gave confidence to our people. It united us to one goal and building Mohabbat ki Dukaan brought a lot of respect for Mr Gandhi,” he says.
The Congress made the right move to start the yatra in Tamil Nadu, which put a stamp of approval from people on the ever-increasing bonhomie between Rahul and Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin. It got enough crowds to set social media abuzz and ensured that people waited for it to pass through their areas.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge claims that a major success of the yatra was that the party could connect with people from all walks of life. He says, “In the past one year, Shri Rahul Gandhi embarked on the historic Bharat Jodo Yatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, where he walked on foot for over 4,000 kilometres and met Indians from every walk of life, all social strata and diverse religions, castes, age groups, regions and backgrounds. No other leader has undertaken such a strenuous padyatra in the recent history.”
A New Political Discourse
Srivatsa feels that Rahul has redefined politics with his pro-people approach. So much so that even Modi and the BJP are taking cues from Rahul’s stand on social and economic issues. “Earlier the BJP would make every situation communal, but look at its claims in the campaigns of the recently concluded five elections. BJP leaders talked about rozi-roti, kapda, makaan, social welfare, concern for the poor, humaari gaurantee, kisano ke liye kya karenge, etc. The focus of the Indian politics post the Bharat Jodo Yatra has shifted to social justice, delivery of social welfare and governance,” he says.
Modi’s critics argue that after making fun of welfare politics through his revdi remark, now he is issuing guarantees on social welfare on the lines of what the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and Punjab and the Congress in Karnataka and Chhattisgarh have been doing.
While Prime Minister Modi has his own claims on the welfare model of politics, the Congress has been trying to outsmart the BJP on this issue, with Rahul being the face of this new politics. Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot never tires of crediting Rahul for his ambitious health insurance scheme the Mukhyamantri Chiranjeevi Swasthya Beema Yojana. Its coverage for the poor has progressively increased from Rs 5 lakh in 2021 to Rs 25 lakh now and has left behind the Centre’s Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, which provides a health insurance for Rs 5 lakh.
Such an image of a social welfarist sits well with Rahul, and this is where the second benefit of the Bharat Jodo Yatra has accrued to him. Ever since he entered politics, he has reached out to the poor consistently. But, in this year, he seemed to have increased its pace and found resonance among supporters.
His outreach seems to have done his image a world of good. Earlier, people said that he lacked the charisma of a mass leader, who can connect directly with their supporters. But, of late, Rahul has cultivated a constituency for himself. His appeal was most visible during the Bharat Jodo Yatra, where common people would join him whenever it passed through their areas. One such incident happened near the Shaheen Bagh area of Delhi, where Rahul led the yatra on December 24, 2022. This area was made famous by the women protestors during the agitation against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Shopkeepers downed shutters of their shops in the middle of the day and, along with other local residents, started walking with Rahul without any exhortations from party workers.
Rahul added another dimension to his advocacy of social justice after the Bihar government announced the result of caste census. He has proposed that if his party come to power next year, it will conduct a caste census in the entire country. With this addition, he has created a trinity of social justice politics involving class concerns, minority rights and caste justice, something that is likely to define his politics in times to come.
At the same time, Srivatsa says, Rahul is not anti-business, adding that he has an alternative vision for propelling India’s economic growth. “He is not anti-business. He is pro-business, but anti-monopoly. He is pro-small and medium-scale businesses and pro-jobs. He wants to put India’s wealth in the pockets of the deprived, and not a select few rich businessmen. He wants a production economy that creates jobs for the youth,” he says.