By Nikhil Inamdar
BBC News, Mumbai
Rahul Gandhi, leader of India’s beleaguered opposition party, the Indian National Congress, is halfway and more than 2,000km (1,240 miles) into a long ‘unity march’ across India.
The five-month-long footslog, which began at the southern tip of the country in Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, will finish in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, by February.
The BBC met Mr Gandhi as the rally passed through Vidarbha, the poorest region of India’s richest state Maharashtra which has repeatedly been in the headlines for farmer suicides.
Thronged by a motley rabble of women party workers, queer rights groups and campaigners for old-age pensions, Mr Gandhi said he was trying to “seed an alternate vision for the idea of India through this march”.
“With more work, this has the capacity to decimate the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP),” he said.
It’s a claim that has excited his supporters, though critics view it with scepticism. The Congress currently governs only two out of 28 states in India – a steep fall from its heyday as India’s biggest party.
The BJP has dismissed Mr Gandhi’s mission as seeking to fix a country that’s not broken. But over the past 75-odd days, some Bollywood actors, several academics, activists and even opposition leaders from other parties who’ve been trenchant critics of the Congress have joined the march in a show of support for Mr Gandhi.
In Vidarbha, large party flags and big blow-up posters of Mr Gandhi lined the narrow country roads as we paced up with his brisk stride to ask him questions.
Hundreds of people, including young, uniformed school children and dancers performing the traditional lazium folk dance, lined either side of the road. As the rally passed through villages, people waved from their rooftops, and party workers chanted “Nafrat Chodo, Bharat Jodo (Give up hate, unite India)” slogans in unison.
A day earlier, a public gathering by the Congress – where Mr Gandhi made an impassioned speech protesting about ruling dispensation’s “divisive politics” – had attracted a crowd of over a hundred thousand people.
The BBC spoke to a number of ordinary citizens who had travelled hundreds of kilometres to walk alongside Mr Gandhi.
A management consultant from Hyderabad who voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP in 2014 said he was there because of his “disillusionment” with the current government. A couple who ran an ice-cream parlour in the city of Pune held up banners to protest against what they claimed was the politicisation of India’s universities. Many villagers said they were just curious because nothing as grand ever happened where they lived.
“I am here in the hope that this provides the spark to reignite the lost India of liberal, secular, inclusive, progressive values,” said Tushar Gandhi, the great grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, who was spending a day at the rally.
Despite little attention paid to the march by large sections of the pro-BJP Indian media, it is apparent that Mr Gandhi has managed to galvanise large crowds in the five states he’s crossed so far.
But larger questions about the potency of the march remain.
Will it aid in a better electoral outcome for India’s atrophied grand old party that’s faced some devastating losses recently? And will it change perceptions about Mr Gandhi, who’s been pummelled by his opponents for being a political dilettante?
“He’s not a princeling, that’s an image created by his adversaries,” said Kanhaiya Kumar, a former student leader and now Congress member whose oratorial skills are being used to the hilt during the march. It was precisely this kind of “propaganda” that the march was trying to counter at the grassroots, he added.
The Congress has often said that this is not an election-focused rally, but Mr Kumar admitted that one of the reasons for it was to “re-establish an emotional connect with voters”. It’s why in his speeches Mr Gandhi has repeatedly targeted the BJP on the economy, cost of living, unemployment and farmer suicides.
The grassroots level engagement with party workers is also leading to an “organisational rejuvenation” of the Congress at the very bottom, senior leader Jairam Ramesh said.
Mr Gandhi’s popularity ratings have seen a slender jump since he began the march. According to polling agency C-Voter, across all the states he’s walked, there’s been a 3-9% increase in people’s satisfaction about Mr Gandhi’s performance compared with just before he began the march.
But these marginal improvements also underscore how much ground he’ll have to cover to emerge as a serious challenger to Mr Modi in 2024, when India holds its general elections.
According to Yashwant Deshmukh, founder-director of C-Voter, the march has helped in “repairing Mr Gandhi’s image in the southern states” – which aren’t BJP strongholds. But converting that into votes, he says, “will be a different ballgame altogether.”
“There’s also the question of whether the throng of supporters will thin out as he enters India’s northern provinces – or the ‘Hindi heartland’ – where the ruling BJP is on firm ground,” he adds.
Critics are also doubtful whether there will be immediate electoral pay-offs in the poll-bound states of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
And whether the Congress can benefit in the long run will depend on how effectively it can “sustain the momentum once the march is formally concluded”, says Sanjay Jha, a former Congress spokesperson who was suspended in 2020 for criticising the party.
According to Mr Jha, the Congress needs to work concurrently on deeper organisational problems such as invigorating demoralised cadre, reducing infighting and nepotism, and adopting a clearer ideological stance beyond BJP bashing.
The party also needs to be less “nonchalant” about the exodus of leaders who’ve defected to the BJP, and get rid of its “dynastic obsession” with the Gandhi family, says Mr Jha.
Last month, the Congress appointed its first non-Gandhi president in 24 years. But Mr Mallikarjun Kharge, a Gandhi family loyalist, is widely seen as a proxy for them, and the party was accused of marginalising its wider talent base during the internal presidential elections.
In this backdrop, the BJP is asking how Mr Gandhi – unable to keep his own party together – can unite India. Or make claims of wanting to restore democracy, when it is lacking in his own party.
Still, political pundits insist that such an initiative has been a long time coming in a country that’s seen a growing void in the opposition benches. The march isn’t a magic wand, but it might just be the first significant step in stemming the interminable decline of the Congress party since 2014.
“It resurrects the Congress as a serious opposition in waiting and increases its negotiating power as the lynchpin of opposition unity,” Mr Jha says.