Rahul Gandhi, the senior leader of India’s main opposition Congress Party, has launched a cross-country “unity” march, echoing iconic protests by India’s independence hero Mahatma Gandhi, as he aims to revive the party’s sagging electoral fortunes ahead of the 2024 general elections.
Gandhi, a scion of the influential Gandhi family, flagged off the march, named “Bharat Jodo Yatra” or “Unite India Rally” in the southern coastal town of Kanyakumari on Wednesday to counter the increasing religious divide, rising unemployment, escalating prices and the weakening of democratic institutions.
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The Congress leader accompanied by supporters will cover more than 3,500km (2,175 miles) to reach Srinagar city in the northernmost Himalayan region of Kashmir in about 150 days.
Gandhi attacked the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological mentor – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu supremacist organisation – for dividing India, officially a secular nation, on the lines of religion and language.
The BJP has been accused of running anti-Muslim agenda, with increasing attacks against Muslims since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014. Dozens of Muslims have been lynched in the past eight years amid rising Islamophobia. The party has denied the charges.
“The Indian flag does not belong to any particular community or party, it belongs to all of us. Millions and millions of people feel there’s need to take action that brings India together,” Gandhi said at the rally.
“Our tricolour guarantees the right to practice any religion of choice, but today this flag is under attack,” he said.
Hindutva vs secularism
The Congress Party or “Grand Old Party”, which governed for decades after India’s 1947 independence from Britain, is a shadow of its former self, discredited and crushed under the electoral juggernaut of Modi’s BJP, which thrashed the Congress Party in the last two general elections.
Modi has derided Gandhi – descended from India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru – as an out-of-touch pampered princeling and playboy.
The Congress Party has struggled to counter the BJP’s politics of “Hindutva” – an ideology that believes in making India an exclusively Hindu state.
New Delhi-based political expert Manoj Joshi, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, told Al Jazeera that the rally might not make much impact on the ground, but “at best it can breathe some life into an already moribund organisation”.
“Though, given the divisive politics of the BJP, Rahul had picked a good theme of uniting the people. But I doubt if [Gandhi] has the political skills to capitalise on them. He is too casual in his approach to politics,” Joshi said.
Before setting off on the trek, Gandhi prayed at a monument in Sriperumbudur in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where in 1991 his father Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated – like his grandmother Indira Gandhi seven years earlier.
“I lost my father to the politics of hate and division,” Rahul Gandhi wrote on Twitter on Wednesday after visiting the site where his father, a former prime minister, was killed by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber.
“I will not lose my beloved country to it too,” he said.
The BJP under Modi has consolidated its control since 2014, when it came to power in nationwide elections, by winning many states still ruled by Congress. The party has been riding a Hindu-nationalist wave, while the 137-year-old Congress has typically promoted secular politics.
“Hate has brewed in the country in the name of caste and religion. If we don’t control this now, there can be a civil war,” Ashok Gehlot, a Congress leader and chief minister of western Rajasthan state, told reporters ahead of the march on Wednesday.
‘Weakening the country’
The march comes ahead of elections in the western state of Gujarat – Modi’s home state – this year and the central state of Madhya Pradesh next year. Both states are currently ruled by the BJP.
“This is a landmark occasion for our great party with such a glorious legacy – the Indian National Congress. I am confident that our organisation will be rejuvenated,” Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi’s mother and Congress Party chief, said in a statement.
“I want to ask you whether price rises or hatred strengthens the country… Narendra Modi and the BJP are weakening the country,” Rahul told a rally in New Delhi on Sunday ahead of the mega march.
“The Congress Party, on the other hand, unites the country. We erase hatred and when hatred is erased, the country moves faster.”
A ‘family-saving campaign’
The BJP said the march was organised by the Gandhi family to keep control over the Congress Party.
“Essentially, it is a family-saving campaign. The family’s and the party’s political expanse has been shrinking while they face corruption charges,” BJP leader and former union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad was quoted as saying by the PTI news agency.
“This is not about unifying the country but trying to establish him [Rahul] again as a leader. I would like to know how many times he will be launched and relaunched?”
Ajay Gudavarthy, who teaches at the Center for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that “BJP has managed to cut all avenues of expression of what people are feeling on the ground”.
“There is discontent but no avenues to express it,” Gudavarthy said. “Bharat Jodo Yatra will, to begin with, give people space to express their immediate concerns. It is then left to the Congress as to how they can translate it into a concrete programme.”
“Rahul Gandhi is the only leader who has taken a strong position against the RSS,” he noted.
Gudavarthy said that Rahul Gandhi “has articulated [yatra] as an ideological battle, unlike Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and other regional parties”.
“But Congress has to find a way of breaching the consolidated Hindu vote that supports the BJP on religious grounds but not on issues of development and governance,” he said. “Congress has not been able to do that so far.”
Rifat Fareed contributed to this report