Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra was a success, certainly from his vantage point. But the success of the yatra might be pushing Opposition politics to a stalemate ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
First, the success. The yatra has, as many pointed out, restyled Mr. Gandhi and restored him to the front and centre of Opposition politics. He announced the yatra at a time when everyone was confused about his plans after he decided not to return as president of the Congress party. A group within the party had raised questions about the drift in the party’s leadership. Other Opposition leaders were trying to spread their wings — Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Telangana counterpart and Bharat Rashtra Samithi leader, K. Chandrashekar Rao, made their national ambitions clear, sensing an opportunity to displace the Congress as the axis of non-BJP politics.
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Mr. Gandhi’s yatra put a lid on it. It is now difficult, if not impossible, to envisage a viable Opposition to the BJP without the Congress, or Mr. Gandhi, after the yatra.
The yatra refurbished his image, and he is now increasingly seen as someone capable of listening and leading. Alongside the yatra, he also snuffed out the putative rebellion in the party. Faced with the prospects of choosing one among themselves as the Congress chief, the self-styled reformists in the party fell in line with Mr. Gandhi and rallied behind Mallikarjun Kharge, the chosen one of the first family, who was elected president.
Civil society organisations
Mr. Gandhi’s yatra galvanised India’s civil society organisations. Civil society organisations have had a strange relationship with the Congress for long. On the one hand, they received Congress patronage and on the other, they undermined the party, as open detractors and as Trojan horses in the camp.
The rise of Hindutva brought the state sledgehammer so hard on them that many had lost all hope. Causes that they champion — from environment to human rights, indigenous rights to gender violence — were all orphaned in the recent years. The yatra has given them a new hope. They found a new platform to congregate on, and gained a new lease of life.
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All this, however, is not leading to any unified, purposeful Opposition to the BJP ahead of 2024. The Opposition is in the risk of hurtling towards a stalemate. Regional chiefs who may have an interest in confronting the BJP now know that Mr. Gandhi is at the centre stage, but they are not yet willing to accept his leadership.
In fact, political calculations at the beginning of 2022 were premised on Mr. Gandhi’s continuing decline within the Congress and outside. A post-Rahul future of the Congress was being discussed. The yatra has not merely quelled that speculation, but also become an opportunity for him to demonstrate a possessive passion for politics.
The new Rahul Gandhi
But this success is the recipe for a new stalemate. While Mr. Gandhi has perched himself as the moral authority within the party and the larger Opposition universe, he does not want to, or cannot, exercise his authority to resolve issues within the party in Rajasthan, Maharashtra or Karnataka.
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He appears to be staying aloof from electoral and organisational politics. One of Mr. Gandhi’s new-found followers, Yogendra Yadav, had once said that the death of the Congress was a precondition for any alternative politics in India.
Mr. Gandhi ensured that the Congress does not die, and he is not wished away. At the same time, he has not garnered enough strength to force all of his colleagues, not to talk of regional satraps, to rally behind him. In other words, the stalemate is that there cannot be Opposition politics without him, but his role in a broad coalition remains a tough puzzle.
The onus is on Mr. Gandhi to break this stalemate. The Rahul Gandhi you know is dead, he declared enigmatically, during the yatra. There is apparently a new Gandhi. The new Gandhi needs to stand up.