In a deliberate emulation of India’s revered independence hero Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the country’s main opposition leader at present is on the final leg of a mammoth public walk across the length of the subcontinent.
Defying critics and sceptics, the 3,500km (2,175 miles) walk by Rahul Gandhi — no relation to the freedom fighter — has succeeded as both political protest and mobilisation. Over the last three months, the Bharat Jodo Yatra or the March for the Unity of India has been met with widespread enthusiasm.
Now in its last phase, the yatra entered the northern state of Punjab on Tuesday night as it makes its way to its conclusion on the high peaks of Indian-administered Kashmir. In walking so long, Gandhi — the face of the Indian National Congress — is offering the world’s largest democracy a new political vision and script pitched against the shrill political Hinduism or Hindutva of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The aim of the yatra, a term usually associated with a Hindu pilgrimage, is political redemption. It has reignited the Congress party that had been immobilised for a decade with serial electoral defeats. Mocked mercilessly by the BJP as an amateur politician, Gandhi has emerged today as a leader with mass appeal.
With a simple message of interreligious harmony and prosperity for all, the epic walk has focussed on common human interactions. At each stop every day, Gandhi’s aides document and disseminate on social media the conversations their leader has with farmers and workers, young and old, men and women and children too about their shattered dreams under the Modi government. These capture a snapshot of the lived realities of the Indian economy, where unemployment and inflation are high, with a government that has been high on promises and low on their delivery.
Gandhi’s message is that Modi’s strident Hindutva is what is weakening the economic and social potential of India. All this and the accompanying clamour for hugs and selfies with the bearded opposition leader have charged a political and media landscape that has otherwise been monopolised by Modi. For the first time since his ascent, Modi has been rendered silent.
The political message is indeed that of a clash between a multicultural or secular polity on the one hand and Hindu supremacist policies on the other. But it is clear that the march is framing that battle as also being led by two very different kinds of men who now animate and divide Indians.
Modi and the BJP have long railed against India’s secular politics typified by Gandhi’s family as embodying corruption and decay that they claim have denied India its rightful place in the world order. Gandhi’s great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv Gandhi all served as prime ministers.
Two massive majority mandates for Modi, in 2014 and 2019, have helped to cloak violent Hindutva in the guise of popular anger against entrenched political elites. Modi has fashioned himself as a strong but populist everyman who has risen against this so-called ancien regime.
Today, from laws to political rhetoric, Modi embodies an aggressive “Hindu first” agenda for India. From proposed legislation that introduces religious discrimination in citizenship to the routine violence against minorities, Modi’s agenda for cultural uniformity is seeking to drastically recast India.
At 52, Gandhi has long been vilified as a fourth-generation dynast. Yet precisely because of his family history, he has long and intimate knowledge of power and violence. Both his grandmother and father were assassinated. Shunning political office and the trappings of power, Gandhi has immersed himself in pursuing a direct relationship with the people. He appears to have understood that Modi’s strongman tactics can be countered only with the power of shared vulnerability that brings together everyone who is less than fully committed to Hindutva and has — as a consequence — felt the sharp wedge of authority that stalks India’s public life.
If Modi has expressed his political power through authority and populism, then Gandhi has sought a compassionate connection. In seeking a horizontal coalition of different sections of India, the yatra’s message is to empower a politics of fearlessness. In so doing, it seeks to rediscover the principles of diversity and equity that have been foundational to independent India. Strikingly, the yatra has emphasised a simple political script of emotions such as love, fellowship and sacrifice to blunt and counter the dominant narratives of violence and identity.
About a century ago, the famous salt march of Gandhi – the Father of the Nation – thwarted the British empire and Indian political elites alike as he shunned political office and power but lit up common Indians with audacious hope. He was searching for a transformation of politics and a redefinition of political relationships. He succeeded.
It would be ridiculous and foolhardy to compare the two Gandhis. The contest today is not about the overthrowing of a foreign imperial power. It is an entirely internal and intimate choice about the future identity of India.
But in offering a political paradigm different from that projected by Modi and the BJP, the Bharat Jodo Yatra has helped demarcate the battle lines for 2024, when the next national elections are scheduled to take place. After being overwhelmed by Modi and Hindutva for nearly a decade, Indian democracy might finally be ready for a real contest of ideologies, emotions and personalities.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.