Can the Bharat Jodo Yatra revive the Congress and Brand Rahul?

Ashraf Engineer

October 1, 2022


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

Gandhi undertook the Dandi March as part of the Salt Satyagraha more than 90 years ago to energise the freedom struggle and to defy a brutal colonial government hell-bent on milking India for every ounce of its wealth. It worked like magic. Today, another Gandhi, Rahul, though no relation of his, has taken a leaf out of his book to undertake the Bharat Jodo Yatra. His effort is to energise his party, the Congress, and to keep it relevant at a time of unending electoral reverses. Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is an ambitious political move that’s meant as much to rejuvenate the Congress as to showcase his acceptance as a mass leader.

The yatra kicks off at a time when India is facing another national struggle – against a sharply divided society, rampant hate and stunning economic decline. The march will cover an estimated 3,500 km over five months, from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, across 12 States and two Union Territories.

The question is can it work? Can it transform the Congress’ culture, which has been problematic and responsible for much of its reverses? Blame it on coteries, personal fiefdoms and even outright dissent. The party has paid the price for it in terms of electoral losses and an exodus of leaders. Its ideology may be correct but it has been unable to hold its own in most cases when it comes up against the discipline of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. I staunchly oppose the Sangh ideology, and there are several others who do so too because they recognise the danger it poses to India. The problem is that the Sangh has managed to inspire in its rank and file a sense of purpose, however misguided, and a willingness to put aside their own ambitions to work for its cause. And the Sangh has created better organisational structures than other parties.

It’s a tragedy that an organisation so antithetical to the idea of India can do this but one that has been central to the idea of India can’t. Can the Bharat Jodo Yatra finally help the Congress and Rahul turn the corner?


The yatra was much-needed in a country being torn apart by sectarianism. It’s good political theatre, it’s good politics and it shows that the Congress and Rahul are not afraid to take a stand. It means millions of citizen engagements and it positions Rahul and the Congress as proactive rather than reactive.

What will be interesting to watch is whether the march can transform how the Congress is perceived. It has much baggage that it wants to shed, such as the Emergency and the anti-Sikh riots after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The yatra enables the party to turn the focus back on its social agenda and is the best chance of it becoming once again the default electoral choice of Indians who believe in the idea of India as it was conceived at Independence.

But can the Congress stop itself from imploding? The rebellion in Rajasthan of Ashok Gehlot, who felt pushed into surrendering his chief ministership to become party president, is worrying. And it’s silly to deny that the Congress faces a trust deficit because of its own compromises and the inability to shake off charges of dynastic succession. That makes the challenge to Narendra Modi and his cadres an uphill task.

It’s bad news at a time when the pushback against Hindutva lacks strategy and direction. It’s alarming when you consider that hate has found a strong electoral constituency.

In my view, the yatra’s success or failure will boil down to what Rahul decides to make of it. Can he swing the very large undecided electorate towards the Congress? To do that, he will have to inspire the masses and the average Congress worker who is looking to him for leadership amid the demoralisation. It’s not an easy journey.

To that end, the yatra is a great start – because something had to give, something had to be done. Just take a look at the electoral results in recent times. The party has lost two general elections and 39 of the 49 Assemblies that were elected in the interim. The scale of these failures has been huge and it seems to have had no effective response.

As I said earlier, a march by itself is not new to India and critics have responded predictably to Rahul’s reenactment of sorts – they’re calling it a desperate gamble to preserve Brand Rahul, a clutching at straws by a flailing Congress, and so on. But Rahul doesn’t seem fazed and seems to be enjoying meeting Indians across the social spectrum. Besides, if a party is flailing, what else should the leader do? It’s his job to revive it and he’s attempting precisely that.

And why should creating, maintaining and preserving a personal brand be seen as silly? After all, Modi seems to be doing nothing else.

A leader’s image is synonymous with that of the party and so its upliftment is smart strategy.

The first test will be the Gujarat elections in December. In 2017, Rahul was at the helm of a smart, belief-fuelled campaign that almost succeeded in toppling the BJP government. Since then, the Congress has simply drifted along, losing mass leaders like Alpesh Thakore and Hardik Patel. The Aam Aadmi Party, meanwhile, is making significant strides in the state. This will only make it easier for the BJP to win once again.

Naturally, the Congress can’t afford another loss and there’s a lot at stake. This is where the yatra, once again, comes in.

So, here in a nutshell, are the positives and negatives of the yatra.

Contact with the people is good and the visuals of Rahul with children and socially weak groups like fisherfolk are working well. Getting people to back you is the primary aim of politics and the yatra could mean a big plus on that front.

It will also boost the morale of Congress workers who have long said that the leadership isn’t doing enough to engage with people and that there is no mobilisation programme.

The timing is important too. In addition to the leaders from Gujarat that I mentioned, the party has lost stalwarts like Ghulam Nabi Azad and Kapil Sibal. Others like Prithviraj Chavan have been vocal about their concerns. The march could serve as a unifying act.

On the downside, it seems to be about national unity, unemployment, inflation and social harmony all at once. Does that mean the messaging is diffused? Is it talking about too many things simultaneously? Possibly, though they are all admittedly important concerns.

So, will we see a new Congress after Rahul’s yatra? Can the positivity convert into votes? It’s early days, but there’s no denying the yatra’s rapidly increasing relevance.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at Catch you again soon.