The Bharat Jodo Yatra has been a much-needed PR triumph for the Gandhi-putra. But will it alter his political fortunes—or that of his party? Political experts are mostly sceptical—then again, these same pundits dismissed the yatra when it kicked off.
Editor’s note: In the first part of this series, we laid out the details of the Bharat Jodo Yatra—and explained its aims (stated or otherwise).
From Pappu to Mr Popular
Before the yatra: Rahul Gandhi’s personal cred was at an all-time low. He’d led his party to a long string of defeats—decimating its numbers in the Parliament and across states. The BJP has become so successful in engineering victory—either by ballot or by bribery—even the odd success as in Himachal Pradesh now seems temporary. Since no one respects a leader who can’t deliver, Gandhi had lost control even of Gandhi family loyalists like Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot—who publicly humiliated him by refusing to run for party president.
At the outset, the yatra was viewed as yet another foolish ‘Rahul Baba’ exercise. As Foreign Policy put it:
Even now, when the party should be concentrating its energies on choosing the best candidate to lead the fight against Modi in 2024, its leadership race has been eclipsed by a 150-day so-called unity march led by politician Rahul Gandhi. The procession, staged as an historic event, is mostly a means to repair the tattered reputation of Rahul.
After the yatra: Most of the Indian media has studiously ignored the yatra, but it is clear that it has outdone (painfully low) expectations. The smattering of ground reports reveal two key wins for Gandhi:
One: Viral photos may not win elections, but they certainly helped undercut the BJP’s portrait of Gandhi as a clueless, out-of-touch rich boy. As Vir Sanghvi puts it:
This is not the Rahul of caricature — sitting magisterially at home, playing with Pidi (his dog), while regional leaders supplicate before him. This is not the man who makes bizarre personnel decisions from which state units never recover. This is not someone who suddenly disappears to mysterious foreign locations.
But it’s not just pundits on the Delhi circuit saying so. The yatra put a dent in the ‘Pappu’ image even among some Modi supporters who encountered him on the trail:
Similarly, in Indore’s Ambachandan village, Arun Kumawat, another self-professed Modi supporter, said seeing Rahul Gandhi in flesh and blood made him realise the “pappu” characterisation was the BJP’s “mobile marketing”. “Takat to hai usme, dikh gaya woh,” he said. “It’s clear that he is a powerful man. We have seen it with our own eyes this time — the way he walked, the big crowds that came to see him.”
No. Gandhi’s still not as revered as Modi among the BJP voters, but he’s no longer seen as a buffoon: “If you ask me today, I have no hesitation in saying that after Modi, the biggest leader in India is Rahul Gandhi.”
Point to note: Gandhi’s ‘just a regular guy’ interview with the food and travel influencer Kamiya Jani impressed English-speaking Indians on Twitter. But even he knows that the demographic is politically insignificant—and won’t win him or the Congress any elections.
Two: People like him a lot more. The yatra has done wonders for Gandhi’s personal popularity in the states on his itinerary. His approval ratings jumped from 38.8% to 57.7% in Karnataka—and from 34.6% to 55.6% in Telangana. The bump in the north was more modest, but still significant. It rose from 45.7% to 54% in Madhya Pradesh—and from 32.8% to 40.8% in Rajasthan.
Three: For better or worse, it has revived hope in the hearts of the Congress rank-and-file. A party leader in Uttar Pradesh—where Congress and Gandhis have been decimated—bluntly says: “Earlier, there was sort of an embarrassment, hesitation, whatever you choose to call it, to be associated with him, now that’s over for good.” In Southern states like Karnataka, the sentiments are far more upbeat:
This is very clear while walking with the yatris and observing their morale. “The Bharat Jodo Yatra will rebuild the Congress party,” claimed Uma Shankar, a Congress worker from Bengaluru, walking with Rahul Gandhi while the yatra crossed Karnataka. “We will win both Karnataka and national elections thanks to the wave this generates.”
Of course, renewed faith in Gandhi also diminishes any hope that the party will finally wean itself from the family’s patronage.
A very big ‘but’ for Congress
The yatra may have done wonders for Gandhi’s personal brand, but it has done little to defuse the core criticism—that this personal PR exercise has little value for the party. There are serious concerns as to whether a yatra can achieve the far more difficult and urgent task of reviving Congress.
One: Forget political experts. Even Congress workers are worried that the Bharat Jodo Yatra will do very little to jodo a party riddled with infighting. Bitter battles between leaders in key states have left the state units in disarray—often made worse by Gandhi’s interference. And his yatra’s feel-good vibes have already faded in places like Rajasthan—leaving party members in despair. As one booth worker explains:
Ultimately, I am the person bringing the voter from their homes to the booth and if I am not doing my job properly because I feel undermined and trapped in the party’s internal politics, then that final push is not going to be there. This last-level contact with the voter is where the BJP does really well.
Two: All that talk about pyaar and mohabbat isn’t going to win anyone’s vote. It’s lovely that Gandhi can feel the aam aadmi’s pain, but he has not articulated any plan to relieve it. As Sheela Bhatt points out:
In a fast-changing India, if you don’t beg for votes upfront, it will take decades to grab voters’ attention. Is the Congress planning for a long haul? Indians’ daring pragmatism and resilience have proved that most voters don’t speak the pyaar–mohabbat language on an empty stomach. Talk of development, generating jobs, giving free ration and liveable houses to the poor, and the ‘love talk’ will follow automatically.
Even party workers have urgent problems that cannot be resolved with love and fresh air: “Without a well-oiled organisation, you cannot win elections in India. The Congress karyakarta [worker] is currently full of energy, but there is no one to give them direction.” All of which leads right back to point #1.
Point to note: Given the self-serving maths of politics, the behaviour of other opposition parties offers the best indicator of the yatra’s broader impact. And the indicators are gloomy indeed. Only eight of the 23 invited parties showed up for the event to mark the end of the yatra in Srinagar. India may or may not be united under Rahul’s leadership, the opposition certainly is not:
Rahul failed to create enough political heft for even his ally Sharad Pawar to join him. It’s a silent signal from non-BJP leaders that they don’t think pitting Rahul against Modi in 2024 is a good idea. One is sure that the BJP’s fast-paced machinery will take lessons from the yatra and update its strategy while the Congress will look up to Rahul and wait for his command.
Three: A PR makeover is all very nice but does that make Gandhi any more electable? Or as Pratap Bhanu Mehta lays it out:
[T]he political success of the Yatra turns on one question: Does the Yatra place Rahul Gandhi in a better position to exert more authority within the Congress party? Does it make him a politically more acceptable leader? The Yatra may have projected Rahul Gandhi’s empathy and resolve. But has it done much to overcome the idea for many voters that Rahul was the symbol of the old, hollowed out, political order. He was an easy foil against whom Modi made himself look good.
Gandhi has tried to sidestep the question by framing the yatra as a form of asceticism: “I believe in tapasya. So I wanted an element of suffering for myself in this communication with people.” The sentiment resonates in a country that reveres the Mahatma—but Bapu-ji never had to win anyone’s vote. The ordinary Indian may respect the spiritual value of sacrifice, but many want a strongman (or woman, i.e Indira) who thumps his ‘56-inch’ chest:
Even Congress workers admit in private that while the yatra may have helped bridge the gulf between the two leaders, Modi’s stature remained several notches higher than Gandhi’s. “Rahul can’t really give takkar [challenge] to Modi at the national level,” said a Congress functionary in Haryana, echoing what I heard from many people within the party.
Point to note: Ground reports from the yatra often record a very clear vote-splitting mindset. Voters are open to picking Congress in individual states, but the national gaddi belongs to a Modi-led BJP.
The bottomline: It is easy to criticise the many failings of the Rahul yatra. We leave you instead with this image that maps the distance Gandhi has travelled since he began his Congress career. He’s come a long way, baby! Then again, personal growth is rarely a guarantee of political success.
- Los Angeles Times has a good overview of the yatra.
- One of the yatra’s supporters, Yogendra Yadav, lists six reasons why it matters.
- The Print has two good op-eds on whether the yatra really matters: Vir Sanghvi is more sympathetic, while Sheela Bhatt is far more scathing:)
- Scroll reports on the worries of Congress workers—who were buoyed by the yatra but fear it won’t cure the underlying malaise.
- Also in Scroll: a must-read on how voters see Gandhi after the yatra.
- Radha Kumar in Indian Express has an interesting column on the yatra’s unexpected success in Kashmir.
- ICYMI, here’s part one on the yatra—which looks at its primary goals.