Congress sheds inertia, sees pole position in opposition space

A month into the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Congress is seeing some visible gains, with the party attracting a revived, aggressive look. Congress, currently alone in power in just two states – Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – has embarked on the 3,570km marathon journey to keep tabs on the political and electoral revival, backed by the enthusiasm of former party President Rahul Gandhi .

Party leaders are optimistic as the yatra has entered its 34th day. They list three clear positive outcomes: an activated Congress that has left the inertia of the past behind, an interactive top brass that involves people directly, and a mobilized organization that has been inactive for many years. AICC Secretary General Jairam Ramesh, one of the main drivers of the exercise, sees the yatra as a psychological boost for the party.

“I think the yatra showed the Congress party that we can do it. We’re in the streets, in the streets, we’re fighting the BJP. We take the battle to their camps. We raise fundamental questions. We are not reactive. In fact, the BJP is responding to us now, and that is the Yatra’s greatest contribution, in my opinion. It’s more psychological than electoral,” Ramesh said. He expressed confidence that gains would consolidate as 117 Bharat Yatris traversed the entire 12-state route.

Congressional strategists claim that the main goal is to connect with the masses and address their issues, as decided at the Udaipur Chintan Shivir, where both Congress Presidents Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi acknowledged that the party was off the ground.

Guides say that Rahul Gandhi met more than 550 people individually while walking during the yatra and interacted with several stakeholders with specific concerns.

“This is the first time in many years that the Congress will be discussed in remote areas and villages and people are in awe of the fact that Rahul Gandhi is going all the way,” says Digvijay Singh, former Prime Minister of Madhya Pradesh, chairing the congress said the Yatra Organizing Committee.

In many ways, the yatra is becoming the former Congress President’s personal image, with senior party leaders repeatedly claiming that India will see a new Rahul Gandhi after the trip.

The party’s social media department has been careful to project their leader’s loving side – tying his mother’s shoelaces, playing with children, hugging an elderly woman and so on. The idea is to combat the BJP’s narrative that “Rahul Gandhi is a reluctant leader and a tourist politician who takes many vacations”.

“This is a transformative moment for Rahul Gandhi. His stamina and clarity of thought are evident in the yatra,” said Jairam Ramesh, adding that the yatra has seen three impromptu press conferences by the congress scion, who holds two clear ideological lines.

First, he said Congress makes no distinction between minority and majority communalism and will fight both. Second, he made it clear that Congress is against monopolies, not industrialists. These positions bring some clarity to the party’s otherwise blurred lines on secularism and economics, and could be significant after the party allied itself with radical forces in the recent general elections in West Bengal and Kerala.

Congress drew a blank in Bengal, while in Kerala the Left Democratic Front stormed into power with a record victory to buck anti-official trends. Aside from providing a clear ideological position, the yatra helps Congress exert electoral influence in the states it touches.

In BJP-ruled Karnataka, the party considers the public reaction “phenomenal”. “The response we received in Tamil Nadu and Kerala was to be expected, but the support from the people of Karnataka has been tremendous,” said an AICC official.

“The party has traversed the JDS and BJP strongholds in Karnataka and created a stir with hopes of a similar response in YSRCP-ruled Andhra Pradesh and TRS-ruled Telangana,” he added. However, Karnataka Congress leaders feel that the yatra should have covered more assembly segments than just the 20 constituencies it will enter and the 50 it will touch out of the 224 constituencies.

Congress has 70 MLAs in the state, with 14 leaving the party in the recent past. The party’s general secretary for Karnataka, Randeep Surjewala, said three more yatras would be held across the state starting next month.

“The ongoing yatra has activated the party cadres in every assembly segment and unified the state leadership due to the bonhomie it created,” Surjewala told PTI. He said it also helped highlight key issues such as corruption, rising prices and unemployment, and gave Rahul Gandhi an opportunity to interact with non-political segments.

“The BJP is now on the defensive and resorting to copycat syndrome by scheduling similar meetings, but they have not taken up the gauntlet of walking 511km across the state,” Surjewala added. As the journey continues, it remains to be seen whether it will affect the weak Congressional election result.

Interestingly, the Yatra does not cover the survey bound regions of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. The absence of opposition leaders from the yatra is also controversial, although Congress claims the exercise was never aimed at forging opposition unity.

However, at the beginning of the yatra, the party had appealed to the leaders to get involved. The only opposition involvement so far has been that of DMK chief and Prime Minister of Tamil Nadu, MK Stalin, who along with Rahul Gandhi marked the yatra from Kanyakumari. Congress claims that it only officially invited Stalin and no one else.

It seems the grand ol’ party views Bharat Jodo Yatra as a tool for self-renewal and hopes to land at the center of the opposition space by the end of the journey early next year.

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