(Bloomberg) – After more than 100 days of marching nearly the length of India, Rahul Gandhi, scion of the country’s most famous political dynasty, stood before a shivering crowd in the Himachal countryside Pradesh to cheers.
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Bearded and dressed in a white t-shirt, Gandhi bore none of the vestiges of wealth or elitism that have tainted his family name in recent years. In the village of Ghatota, Gandhi’s message to supporters on a cold day this month was simple: “We started this march to bring people together.
His journey through India – a 2,170-mile trek from the country’s southernmost tip to the icy north of Kashmir – marks a watershed moment for Gandhi, 52, who was largely written off after the Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi defeated his party in the last two legislative elections. Once an unbeatable force in Indian politics, Gandhi’s Congress Party has struggled to connect with voters and overcome a reputation marred by corruption scandals and leadership exoduses.
With India’s national elections less than 15 months away, Gandhi is trying to divert attention from Modi, who is seeking a third consecutive term. By stopping in the smallest and most remote villages, Gandhi has sold himself as one of the masses and as a leader capable of countering what government critics see as the BJP’s efforts to advance opinions majority Hindus in a secular nation.
“We will continue to open shops of love in the bazaar of hate,” Gandhi told a news conference in the northern city of Hoshiarpur in Punjab. “The goal of the march is to fight against violence, unemployment, rising prices and income inequality.”
The trek is rich in symbolism, reminiscent of a similar journey made in 1930 by Mahatma Gandhi, India’s revered independence hero, who marched in protest against taxes imposed by British colonizers.
“Rahul Gandhi – relentless, determined – is the core of the energy” that inspired people to join him in his march, said Anshul Avijit, a Congress leader.
But some political observers still doubt that Gandhi’s march, which ends in the city of Srinagar on Monday, will do much to shake the BJP’s dominance on the national stage – unless the Congress Party finds a way to expand its reach. base. More than a third of respondents in a recent poll said the march created a buzz, but would not change India’s current political hierarchy.
Modi’s approval rating is constantly hovering around 60% and the party coffers are full. The BJP’s revenue for 2021 exceeded the combined wealth of the next seven largest national parties. The Congress Party holds only 52 of the 543 seats in India’s lower house of parliament. The BJP has 303.
The journey of Modi – the son of a tea seller who rose on his own merits – is a tough tale to beat. The electorate has increasingly soured on an old guard embodied in the Gandhis, who are often portrayed by the BJP as an anglicised elite with little connection to the lives of most Indians.
Gandhi’s march “does not have the ability to translate crowds into votes,” said Sanjay Kumar, a professor at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. “These days, nationalism is a very big issue that people vote on.”
Still, bleak forecasts did not stop the Congress Party from forging ahead. Senior officials are debating whether Gandhi should make another march across India from west to east, and a door-to-door campaign to highlight the failures of the Modi government began on January 26. Polls suggest the march helped Gandhi’s image. Since last June, his approval rating has fallen from 42.6% to 50%, according to data provided to Bloomberg News by the CVoter tracker.
“The march succeeded in establishing the ideological disconnect that thwarts Hindu nationalism and the BJP,” said Shruti Kapila, professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. “He also defined the lines of battle ahead for 2024 in terms of personalities – namely Modi versus Gandhi.”
In modern Indian history, the Gandhis are akin to political royalty. After India’s independence from the British in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rahul’s great-grandfather, served as the first prime minister. He was followed in this role by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and his son, Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father. Both were murdered, drawing comparisons to the Kennedy family.
In 1998, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother, reluctantly took over the leadership of the Congress Party, a post she held for nearly two decades. She brought the party back to power in the 2004 general election and eventually handed over more duties to Rahul and his younger sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the party’s general secretary.
Prior to the 2014 elections, the Congress Party’s popularity plummeted due to corruption scandals, political paralysis and high inflation. India’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2010, a high-profile event for a country keen to shed its reputation for poor governance, was marred by allegations that officials stole funds and made purchases extravagant.
To shake off this image, Gandhi opted for the life of a walking ascetic, traversing a landscape divided by watery rice paddies and mango orchards, and eating simple meals with farmers, small business owners, and diners. freedom fighters.
Earlier this month, on the 124th day of his march, called Bharat Jodo Yatra, a crowd followed Gandhi in northern India. They were shouting in the streets, dancing on tractors and waving the tricolor of India. In some villages, huge cutouts of a grizzled-looking Gandhi dotted the roadside and children clambered onto rooftops to catch a glimpse of the politician.
The impact of the march will be further demonstrated later this year when local elections begin in several states. But some Modi supporters said they were already rethinking their votes.
Sukhvinder Singh, who backed the BJP in the 2014 and 2019 national elections, said he could switch allegiance. Only a man “humiliated and mocked” by his enemies “would walk in this freezing cold with just a t-shirt,” Singh said. Gandhi’s struggle for dignity moved him.
“Indians love stubborn politicians,” he said.
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