Can India’s Opposition March to Victory Against Modi?

Rahul Gandhi just led a nationwide procession to rally support ahead of next year's elections. Could he go on to oust the incumbent prime minister?

Can India’s Opposition March to Victory Against Modi?
A Rahul Gandhi cutout is seen in New Delhi, India, during the Bharat Jodo Yatra, a mass march organized by the Indian National Congress. (Pradeep Gaur/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It is often said that, whatever opinion you have about India, the opposite is also true. This paradox is most visible in the political arena, where the cycle of state and municipal elections continues to throw up surprises and victories for the opposition. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains popular — as is evident in the seventh successive victory by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recent assembly elections in his home state of Gujarat — the opposition Indian National Congress, or Congress party for short, managed to defeat the BJP in Himachal Pradesh, where Hindus account for 96% of the state’s voters. In the national capital of New Delhi, too, the Aam Aadmi Party recently ended the BJP’s 15-year run in the elected municipal body known as the Delhi Municipal Corporation.

As the country gears up for its 18th general election, scheduled for May 2024, the main political opposition in India, led by the 137-year-old Congress party, has launched an ambitious — and arduous — 2,260-mile foot march to build support for their campaign. A former president of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, a fifth-generation scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family that has given the country three prime ministers and several other prominent politicians, is leading the march, which is called the “Bharat Jodo Yatra” (“Unite India March”).

Foot marches, or padayatras in Sanskrit, are highly significant in India, spiritually and otherwise. While holy sites, such as temples or confluences of rivers, draw thousands of pilgrims every year, the 1930 Dandi March led by Mahatma Gandhi (no relation to Rahul) was an inspirational turning point in India’s struggle for freedom from British rule. With 78 chosen disciples, the Mahatma covered 240 miles in 24 days. Over 75,000 people are said to have joined the walkathon, which raised awareness about immediate and long-term concerns, such as resistance to the salt tax, the importance of “ahimsa” (“nonviolence”) and “satyagraha” (a form of civil disobedience).

Such padayatras, or yatras in short, have helped several leaders establish connections with the masses. Chandra Shekhar, a socialist who became prime minister in the early 1990s, embarked on a nationwide yatra in 1983. In “Chandra Shekhar: The Last Icon of Ideological Politics,” the authors Harivansh and Ravi Dutt Bajpai explained that the motivation behind a foot march is mass mobilization. “The key suggestion,” they wrote, “was that among all the Opposition leaders, it was only Chandra Shekhar who could undertake the challenges of undertaking a padayatra to win back the confidence of the common people. … [A]mong all the Indian politicians, Indira Gandhi [then prime minister] commanded a pan-Indian presence, and the padayatra would help Chandra Shekhar gain nationwide acceptability to counter Mrs. Gandhi.”

Another successful marcher was the actor-turned-politician N.T. Rama Rao, who stormed to power in the state of Andhra Pradesh in 1983. The right-wing icons Lal Krishna Advani and Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, too, went on yatras — the Rath Yatra and the Ekta Yatra in 1990 and 1991, respectively, as the BJP sought to build on its recent gains and project itself as a viable national alternative.

Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra began in Kanyakumari, at the southern tip of India, on Sept. 8, and ends today at Srinagar, Kashmir, in the far north. Jan. 30 happens to mark the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s death in 1948, when he was killed by a Hindu extremist following the country’s partition the previous year. For many political commentators and observers, the yatra’s real take-home for Rahul has been an increase in his popularity. Whether this will translate into votes for the Congress party, however, remains to be seen.

Politically, the yatra has taken a heavy toll on the Congress organization, as the day-to-day work of the party is sidelined. For example, in Rajasthan, one of the few states where the Congress party is in power, the leadership has been unable to replace chief minister Ashok Gehlot. Similarly, all crucial appointments in the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) secretariat have been put on hold. The newly elected Congress president, Mallikarjun Kharge, a seasoned leader, appears wary of making decisions, despite having the authority to do so. Things may improve for Kharge after the AICC plenary in February, when a new Congress Working Committee is elected and following assembly elections in his home state of Karnataka in May. In the meantime, nothing seems to be moving, due to Rahul’s preoccupation with the yatra.

Reports from Rajasthan indicate the rivalry between Gehlot and Congress leader Sachin Pilot is the single most potent issue in the state. Gehlot is seen as a leader who has fallen out with the Gandhis following his refusal to hold a meeting of the party’s state assembly members last September. Moreover, his lackluster involvement in the neighboring state of Gujarat saw the BJP win an all-time-high victory. Gehlot’s and Pilot’s public attacks on each other overshadow Rahul’s successes on the Bharat Jodo Yatra. This raises an important question: If Rahul and Kharge cannot unite the party’s leadership, how can they run the country?

Another concern in the Congress is that Rahul has joined forces with left-leaning members of citizens’ groups such as Yogendra Yadav, Medha Patkar and others. Over 150 civil society organizations, drawn from 21 Indian states, are part of Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. In the past, such alliances have played an outsize role, such as between 2004 and 2014, when the National Advisory Council (a body composed of civil society organizations, bureaucrats and industrialists that advised then-Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh) undermined the Congress party’s ability to guide the government. While the support of civil society organizations is helping to raise Rahul’s profile, it may prove costly to the party’s influence if they are elected to office.

Meanwhile, Modi’s BJP has sought to change the party’s sociopolitical base, making inroads with the country’s Dalit (oppressed castes, considered “untouchables”) and tribal voters, as well as through development projects, majoritarianism, nationalism and “garib-kalyan melas” (“welfarism”). As the political scientist and Indologist Christophe Jaffrelot has observed, since 2014, Modi has gained substantial electoral support from poor Hindus by cultivating his image as a plebeian. “This strategy combined two dimensions: first it relied on Modi’s personal background and compassionate style; second, it found expression in welfare programs that did not imply any monetary transfers, but were supposed to testify that Prime Minister Modi was paying attention to the poor,” Jaffrelot wrote in “Populist Welfarism in India: How Modi Relates to the Poor.”

The Congress party, credited with winning India’s freedom struggle against the British Raj and then ruling the newly independent nation uninterrupted until 1977, is battling Modi’s juggernaut. Under the leadership of the late Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira and grandson Rajiv, the Congress was designed to be a big-tent party. For decades, its strength had been the near absence of any fixed ideology. Eventually this backfired, resulting in two back-to-back defeats to Modi and the BJP in 2014 and 2019.

Disunity within the Congress party was again exposed when the Modi government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s long-standing special status in August 2019. The party line opposed the changes, but several party leaders, including Bhubaneshwar Kalita, the Congress’ chief whip in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, tendered their resignation in protest against this position. Kalita said the Congress’ stand on the abrogation of Article 370 — which accorded semiautonomous status to the state — went “against the people’s feelings” and claimed the party seemed “hell-bent on political suicide.”

Yet it is also true that a large number of Congress activists remain proud of the party’s legacy of being anti-Pakistan, crediting Rahul’s grandmother Indira for splitting Pakistan in 1971, which led to the creation of Bangladesh. Then, in 1987, with Indian troops amassed along the Pakistani border, Rahul’s father Rajiv (then prime minister) threatened to go to war with Islamabad. Tough words were again spoken during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance era, when K. Natwar Singh, the foreign minister at the time, promised to give Pakistan a “bloody nose.”

In 2012, Rahul credited Indira for breaking up Pakistan. “I belong to the family which has never moved backwards, which has never gone back on its words,” he told voters in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh. “You know that when any member of my family decides to do anything, he does it. Be it the freedom struggle, the division of Pakistan or taking India to the 21st century.” Today, Rahul has taken on the dual tasks of carrying forward his family’s legacy of not backing down from a challenge and reviving his party’s plummeting fortunes.

Throughout the yatra, Rahul has targeted Modi’s China policy, even raising tempers with jibes about the government’s failure to militarily and diplomatically tame Beijing’s actions on the Sino-Indian borders. Senior ministers have accused Rahul of disparaging Indian soldiers and politicizing sensitive national security issues. The BJP national president J.P. Nadda, for instance, questioned Rahul’s reported remark that Chinese soldiers had beaten Indian soldiers in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. “Our armed forces are [the] epitome of sacrifice, bravery and valor. Whenever the nation has faced any crisis, our army has led from the front to serve the country. Rahul Gandhi has once again lowered the morale of our armed forces by passing highly condemnable and unpardonable remarks,” Nadda said.

Similarly, India’s minister for information and broadcasting, Anurag Thakur, said he was not surprised by Rahul’s statement as, “even at the time of 2017 Doklam clashes between the Indian and Chinese army, Rahul was seen ‘drinking soup with Chinese officials’” in New Delhi. “He [Rahul] and the Congress seem to have no faith in the Indian army. But we have full faith in our army.”

Against these criticisms, Rahul has remained unfazed. During the Delhi leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, he told the actor-politician Kamal Haasan, “You can get attacked from inside. You can face cyberattacks. So, in the 21st century, one has to have a global view. And that’s where the government has completely gone and miscalculated.”

Referring to China, Rahul said, “We constantly hear about what is going on in the border. And the fact of the matter is China has taken about 1,240 miles of our territory. Frankly, we have not said anything. The military has said they are sitting in our territory. The prime minister has said nobody has come. This sends a very clear message to China. … And the message is: ‘We can do what we want, and India will not respond,’ right?”

However, there is a flip side, too, to Rahul’s focus on alleged incursions along the border. Be it the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, the 1965 India-Pakistan war or the Kargil conflict of 1999, in every election that followed these faceoffs, voters largely ignored certain lapses on the part of the ruling party of the day, with no pronounced anti-government sentiment.

China has also been the Congress’ Achilles heel. Any mention of China has the potential to bring back memories of the 1962 debacle when India, under Nehru’s premiership, suffered military and territorial setbacks. Rahul would have been better advised to focus on the 1971 war with Pakistan and recall how Indira managed to split that country into two, despite Beijing’s undeclared support for Islamabad.

In his speeches during the yatra, Rahul chose to speak on broader themes, rather than on localized, political issues, and tried to frame a new charter for political action dissociated from immediate electoral calculations. For instance, at one point during his march, Rahul remarked, “The yatra’s aim is to unite India. When we started this yatra from Kanyakumari, I thought that hatred needs to be erased. And I had this in mind that in this country, hatred is everywhere. But when I started walking, [the] truth turned out to be something different. Twenty-four/seven, Hindu-Muslim hatred is being spread. But this is not the truth. This country is one. I have met lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of people. They all love each other. Then the question is, why is the hatred being spread?”

During the yatra, Rahul has also slammed the Modi government over the economy and unemployment. He said there are two Indias under Modi — one of farmers, laborers, small-business owners, unemployed youth and millions of people and another of “100 people” who hold “half” the nation’s wealth. He claimed that 90% of the profits made by corporate India are held by 20 companies. Citing the latest Oxfam report on the unequal distribution of wealth in India, which stated that, in 2021, the country’s top 1% owned more than 40% of its total wealth, Rahul alleged that Modi “extracts from the country’s poor and gives it to his crony capitalist friends.”

Rahul does not see himself as a power wielder but as a trustee of power, and he expects most of his party colleagues to shun the trappings of power. This expectation has resulted in an exodus of some of his closest associates to other political parties, particularly the ideologically opposed BJP. Rahul has either not understood or is unwilling to understand that political loyalties are highly transactional.

Despite this, and as Rahul’s yatra comes to an end, there is a growing consensus of sorts among Rahul’s detractors and well-wishers that, finally, the Gandhi scion is showing signs of purpose, perseverance and hope in his political journey, which began in 2004.

Politically, the yatra may not be a game-changer, but it has succeeded in establishing Rahul as a credible politician (as against the BJP’s carefully curated narrative of his being a “pappu” — a novice) who can talk the talk, intermingle with the masses and gain support from a range of politicians and celebrities — from M. K. Stalin (chief minister of Tamil Nadu) and Raghuram Rajan (the former head of India’s federal bank) to Aaditya Thackeray, the young and influential Shiv Sena leader in Mumbai, and actors Haasan and Swara Bhaskar.

However, while the Bharat Jodo Yatra may create the right image, it is low on substance. Under India’s first-past-the-post parliamentary system, political parties need to win seats and elections. There are no silver medals. Rahul’s foot march may have attracted a crowd and enthused the party cadres, but there is no other means to quantify it. Pollsters are skeptical about Rahul’s ability to convert any “goodwill” into votes.

In 2014, the Congress won 19.3% of votes, a figure which rose marginally to 19.5% in 2019. The BJP’s vote share over the same period increased from 31% to 38%. According to a recent survey conducted by the pollster C-Voter, Rahul has an approval rating of 31%. Before the yatra, it claimed Rahul’s popularity rating was 29%. It seems Team Rahul is trying to bridge the difference between the Congress’ vote share and Rahul’s approval ratings. It remains too early to tell whether the yatra has had the desired impact.

The Congress party’s chances of revival are intrinsically linked to its electoral fortunes in the 10 states that are poll-bound this year, ahead of the general elections in 2024. These state elections will be a litmus test for Modi and, in particular, the Congress party. While reports from BJP-ruled Karnataka and Congress-ruled Rajasthan suggest a change of regime, it remains to be seen whether the Congress party can wrest Madhya Pradesh from the clutches of the BJP, or if Modi’s outreach among the Other Backward Classes (an official government term to classify socially disadvantaged castes) and tribals leads to the defeat of Congress chief minister Bhupesh Baghel’s regime in Chhattisgarh.

The fortunes of the Congress and other opposition parties are also tied to the 2024 general election, in which they must win half of the 543 parliamentary seats — a challenging but not unmanageable number. The Indian electoral model requires that a political party or coalition of parties gain a simple majority among the directly elected parliamentarians, who in turn choose their prime minister for a five-year term.

In four crucial states — West Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra and Karnataka — the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance did exceedingly well in 2019, winning 78% of the seats. Yet subsequent political developments, including regional allies in Bihar and Maharashtra breaking with the BJP, have created a new scenario. If the BJP were to lose half its seats in these four states, a simple majority of 272 would become a distant dream and prospects of a “khichdi” (“rainbow coalition”) government a reality.

For the Congress party to be a contender, it has to win 100 or more seats from states such as Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and a few others where the party has competed directly with the BJP or where the BJP traditionally has a strong presence.

Next year’s election is set to be contested in contrasting styles. If Team Modi is to take full advantage of the prime minister’s personal ratings, big-ticket projects, the handling of COVID-19 in the context of the massive vaccination program, achievements on the diplomatic front and reliance on emotive issues like the Ram Temple in Ayodhya (to be built on a site that was disputed between Hindus and Muslims until a Supreme Court verdict in 2019 declared for a temple to be made) the Congress and its allies are prepared to take the battle to the states where regional players are expected to hold sway.

If regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar, M. K. Stalin, Naveen Patnaik, H. D. Kumaraswamy, N. Chandrababu Naidu and Akhilesh Yadav manage to hold on to their parliamentary seats, the Congress has the potential to do well in most of the Hindi-belt states and the northeast. This could make Kharge’s year. While Rahul will be preoccupied with his next foot march, under the banner “Hath se Hath Jodo Abhiyan,” (“Join Hands Movement”), Kharge will have an opportunity and responsibility to hold talks with the regional leaders.

The Bharat Jodo Yatra is unlikely to elevate Rahul to the position of prime ministerial candidate for the 2024 general election, but the Congress leader has raised public awareness on key issues of economic inequality, social polarization and political authoritarianism — issues that have found traction among almost all segments of society. This may provide him the moral authority to play a pivotal role in the elections. Could it translate into votes? We will have to wait and see its impact in May 2023, when the state assembly polls of Karnataka will be held.

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