A padayatra or a tipping point

The yatra has succeeded in attracting the attention of the public and an impressive array of stalwarts in the 11 States it has so far passed through.
 Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra
Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra

NEW DELHI: The short answer to the question whether Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra will win the next Lok Sabha election for the Congress is no. From all accounts, the yatra has succeeded in attracting the attention of the public and an impressive array of stalwarts in the 11 States it has so far passed through.

But that enthusiasm is not likely to turn into votes in at least five of those States—Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh— where the party is irreparably damaged or moribund. And in the rest of those States, where the Congress is still in a reasonable shape, it will have to contend with Narendra Modi, who can work the crowd like no one else in national politics.

But frame the question differently, and you could have a different answer. Can the Bharat Jodo Yatra help unseat the BJP-led NDA from power? Despite the BJP’s well-known tactic of declaring victory before a ball has been bowled, that is still one of a number of possible outcomes. And should that outcome come to be, poll pundits circa 2024 will name the Kanniyakumari to Kashmir yatra by Rahul Gandhi as a major turn in the narrative.

The management of the yatra has so far been astute. Its managers have resisted the temptation to make it a barnstorming, rabble-rousing exercise which would have played into the BJP’s hands. Instead, the yatra has the feel of a love fest—a Woodstock of Indian politics—where it seems love is all we need against the BJP’s divisive politics.

It allows a wide swathe of people from non-political backgrounds to participate, and works well for Rahul Gandhi’s style. It keeps him from straying into political arm-wrestling and couches his naivete as idealism. Padayatras work best when they pretend to provide a moral compass rather than a power-seeking quest.

All the same, all padayatras are political and so is the Bharat Jodo Yatra. What the walk has done vis-a-vis Narendra Modi, only the 2024 election will tell. What it has done to increase the Congress party’s leverage vis-a-vis the regional parties fancying themselves in 2024 is immeasurable.

Akhilesh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar may have decided not to participate in the yatra, but they would have to contend with the Congress’s multi-State support base and Rahul Gandhi’s enhanced stature if a hung Parliament ensues a year and a half hence.

While it was easy to dismiss the Grand Old Party as a has-been entity that would be lucky to cross 50 in the Lok Sabha, it would not be easy to do so if the yatra helps the Congress gain even 25 seats over its tally of 2019.

As for the BJP, its response to the yatra has been to ridicule Rahul Gandhi as usual, but the significance of the padayatra in rallying the Opposition is not lost on it. Pundits habitually misrepresent Indian politics as a tussle between the BJP and the Congress, but it has always been a tug of war between an overarching national party (once the Congress, now the BJP) and a coalition of regional parties.

The Samyukta Vidhayak Dal phenomenon, the Janata Party experiment, the United/National Front, the UPA were all variations on the same theme. Given that schema, the saffron party cannot be optimistic about its current prospects in West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, and worried about them in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Haryana where it is in power and therefore susceptible to anti-incumbency.

Plus, it is no nearer in making a headway in the South which might offset any losses in the North. Coming into this very fluid equation, Rahul Gandhi’s padayatra may well be the tipping factor.

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