Will Indian Opposition Leader Rahul Gandhi’s Cross-country March Revive the Congress Party?

India’s opposition Congress Party leader, Rahul Gandhi wrapped up a grueling long march that he began five months ago with the same message he delivered in towns and villages as he walked more than 3,500 kilometers from the country’s southern tip to Kashmir in the north. 

“The ideology that wants to break this nation, we need to stand against it together. But not with hatred, that is not our way,” Gandhi said in Srinagar, the capital of Indian Kashmir, on Monday. He said he wants to show that India is a “country of love.”    

The 52-year-old Gandhi has trekked through 12 states since he launched the “Bharat Jodo” or “Unite India” march in September with the goal to counter what the Congress Party calls the divisive politics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

But analysts say that while the march has revived the flagging spirits of an ailing party, it may not yield significant electoral gains. 

The Congress Party, known as the “grand old party” ruled India for decades since the country’s independence but has been pushed to the margins since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP emerged as the dominant political force in 2014. While critics and opposition parties criticize the BJP for polarizing India along religious lines, Modi remains hugely popular amid a rising tide of Hindu nationalism.  

Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the famous Gandhi political dynasty, has often been called an ineffective opponent to Modi. Often described as a “reluctant” politician, BJP leaders have mocked him as an entitled “prince” and contrasted him to Modi, the son of a tea seller who rose to the top job on his own merit. 

Gandhi’s march aimed to change that image. It emulated a tradition by past political leaders in India of traversing the rural heartland on foot, including the country’s independence leader, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who led a long march in 1930 to resist British rule. 

Besides party workers, the Congress Party leader was joined along the way by hundreds of ordinary citizens, including young people worried about rising joblessness, farmers who say their incomes were too meager and activists who say hate speech is on the rise. 

Political analyst Neerja Chowdhury, who observed the march briefly in western India, said Gandhi received a positive response. “People said that they were very taken by the fact that somebody had come to them to find out their problems and that had impressed them,” she said. 

Gandhi tried to identify with ordinary people as he sought to revive grassroots support — spending the night in cabins made of shipping containers and marching only in a white T-shirt even as temperatures plummeted in North India. He said he decided to forsake warmer clothes after meeting three poor young girls who were shivering in their inadequate clothing. He exchanged his clean-shaven look for a thick beard. 

Political analysts said the march had helped change perceptions of a political leader long seen as out of touch with the masses. “What it has achieved is rebranding, changing his image, making him come across as a more serious politician and not one who will just run away because it has taken incredible stamina to walk 3,500 kilometers, almost 25 kilometers a day,” according to Chowdhury. 

Besides spreading his message of social harmony, Gandhi also focused on issues such as economic inequality, joblessness and inflation, concerns that are expected to resonate during general elections scheduled to be held next year. “The aim is to stand against violence, unemployment, price rises and income inequality,” he said as he crossed Punjab state earlier this month. 

Analysts said the march had succeeded in making an impact. “The completion of the march itself is an accomplishment — it traversed across thousands of kilometers with so many challenges and it ended on a high note in Kashmir. So, it ticked all those boxes,” said political analyst Rasheed Kidwai. “But in electoral terms, I would wait and watch.”   

Although Congress Party spokesperson Jairam Ramesh said the march should not be linked with electoral politics, the question being raised is whether it will yield significant dividends for the Congress Party in the 2024 general elections. Reduced to a mere 52 out of 543 elected seats in parliament, compared to BJP’s 302 seats, it has a huge gap to cover. The Congress Party has also lost a series of state elections in recent years and several disenchanted senior leaders have quit the party. 

Rahul Gandhi stepped down as head of the Congress Party in 2019 after it suffered a second successive humiliating rout in general elections under his leadership. But the Gandhi dynasty is still seen as being firmly in control of the party. 

The impact of his march will be tested when nine states go to the polls this year ahead of next year’s general elections. “The Congress Party vote share has been around 19 percent in the past two general elections. If it can improve this number, then it could mark the start of the revival of the party,” said Kidwai. 

Analysts say the party’s comeback will hinge on its ability to address the issues that led to its decline. “People are viewing Gandhi with new eyes, and the party may get a few more seats than they would have got because of goodwill he has won, but the Congress has to become a fighting machinery, which at the moment it is not,” pointed out Chowdhury. 

While the march has enhanced Gandhi’s popularity, analysts say Prime Minister Modi, seen as one of the most charismatic leaders in recent decades, remains far ahead and is well-placed to win a third term in office. 

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