Yatra ends in Kashmir: Will it rejuvenate Congress and transform Rahul’s image ?

Srinagar : Amid heavy snowfall, Rahul Gandhi, delivered the final speech of his 4000 kilometre cross-country yatra on an open podium inside a Srinagar cricket stadium, reiterating his message of love and unity.

“The aim of his Bharat Jodo Yatra was to save the liberal and secular ethos of the country which is  under assault from the BJP and the RSS,” Gandhi who was clad in Kashmiri pheran told the gathering braving the snow and below-freezing temperature.  “I did not do the Yatra for myself or Congress, the aim is to stand against an ideology that wants to destroy the foundation of the country.”

Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi

Gandhi also played with snow with his sister Priyanka Gandhi throwing snowballs at her. The meeting, attended also by Congress president Mallika Kharge and Kashmiri leaders such as Omer Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti,  was thinly attended by an energetic crowd that hung on to Gandhi’s every word and cheered him on.

Rahul Gandhi with supporters

The yatra received an overwhelming public response in Jammu and Kashmir. More so in Kashmir Valley, where the public participation in it was the first such major political mobilization of people after the withdrawal of Article 370 in August 2019. Major Kashmiri mainstream leaders, who now generally refrain from holding public rallies, seized the opportunity to walk alongside Gandhi. But the yatra essentially was about Gandhi and his alternative secular vision for India.

It has, without doubt, reinvigorated the party’s rank and file in the union territory boosted further by the return of leaders who had joined the former Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad’s newly floated Democratic Azad Party. Congress entered the former state with a proper political agenda: it sought statehood and Article 371  for J&K, a constitutional provision that protects jobs and land rights in regions such as Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and some areas of Assam, some areas of Karnataka-Hyderabad. 

The takeaway from the J&K leg of the yatra is that the Congress seems to have made a credible bid to re-establish itself as a party that is relevant to the dramatically altered political landscape. However whether it maintains the political momentum until the Assembly elections – likely to be held this year –  or for that matter until the 2024 general polls remains to be seen. In October last year, when most of the major Congress leaders in the region flocked to Azad’s DAP, the party seemed to have  been decimated. It had ceased to be a viable political force in Jammu and Kashmir with hardly any vote-gathering leader left in its ranks.  Now, many of them are back.  And the demand for Article 371 and statehood is likely to find a wider political resonance in the UT, including in the Jammu division, where people have become insecure about losing lands and jobs to outsiders.   

Rejuvenation at the national level?

But more than J&K, the yatra has political significance for the party at the national level.  It seems to have breathed a new life into an otherwise dying party. Gandhi drew reasonably good crowds. But mobilizing crowds doesn’t guarantee a good electoral performance as was clear in the last Assembly polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, where Congress performed miserably in the former state,  There will be more tests ahead. Around ten Assembly elections are scheduled to be held before the national elections. Among them, the elections in Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telengana will be very crucial. The BJP will hope to win all of them. But should the party suffer reverses in the majority of these states, this may not bode well for its 2024 chances. The elections in these five major states represent the last chance for the opposition, especially the Congress,  to hurtle back into the reckoning.

Rahul and Priyanka with other political parties leaders

It appears, however, very likely that the BJP will do well in the upcoming state polls. Despite being in power for over eight years, the party remains untouched by anti-incumbency. So much so, that the governance issues seem to hardly matter as Morbi episode in the run-up to the Gujarat polls yet again demonstrated. Even the deaths of around 150 people in the bridge collapse didn’t  affect the BJP’s chances. What is more, the BJP didn’t even lose Morbi seat. The overarching political persona of the prime minister Narendra Modi seems to trump everything. Neither the Congress nor the combined opposition are hardly in a position to mount a credible challenge to the BJP. Or so it seems. 

And these elections would also be a test for the new Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge’s political smarts. He represents the old guard of Congress who are increasingly seen as out of touch with people. Besides, his being seen as a proxy for Gandhis doesn’t help his cause. That said, Kharge by no means represents the change that Congress needs for revival.  It would be important to see how Congress fares in the states. An even moderate performance would be a sign of improvement. 

Gandhi’s makeover

Many political observers, however, remain skeptical about Gandhi’s ability to generate a public groundswell in favour of the Congress. Some are calling the yatra an umpteenth “relaunch” of Gandhi who has so far singularly failed to match up to the political persona of prime minister Modi.   Will he pull it off this time around? Odds are heavily against it. Ever since he took over the leadership of the Congress, both in his formal and de facto roles,  Gandhi has proved incapable of rallying people behind the party. True, PM Modi’s charisma, oratory skills and media support have made Hindutva a reigning ideology of the country. But the lack of an alternative ideological narrative has made the BJP’s job even easier. 

The absence of a narrative, however, is not the only undoing of the Congress. The organization has itself been falling apart with Gandhis becoming a principal political liability. 

Will the tide turn now? The yatra has certainly generated some goodwill, and things look potentially set for a change. Congress has finally shown some assertiveness about pursuing an inclusive political agenda, even though a proper ideological narrative has yet to take shape. Based on the public response to the yatra so far, the message seems to have had some impact, although its electoral implications are still uncertain. For now, Congress can take heart from the victory in Himachal.  It can put some wind in its sails as it prepares for the  Assembly elections next year. The party currently rules in Chhattisgarh, Himachal and Rajasthan. It remains to be seen whether the party retains Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan. Its performance in Karntaka and Madhya Pradesh will also be keenly watched. 

Together, the outcome of the Assembly polls will be a bellwether for 2024. In case the BJP suffers major reverses in the  upcoming state elections, the saffron party could apparently face an uphill climb in the elections next year.