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Plus and Minus of Bharat Jodo Yatra

Congress’ yatra brings relief in a toxic atmosphere, but just raising jobs, prices, or abstract issues won’t offset cultural sensibilities—and that’s where BJP narratives have struck home.
Bharat Jodo

The Bharat Jodo Yatra is the grand old party’s timely move to revive itself. It is about changing the nation’s mood as much as instilling confidence in the Congress cadre and youth associated with it. The yatra has begun with a broad message of harmony, unity and compassion. On social media, videos present Rahul Gandhi as a well-meaning, decent, and compassionate person. The yatra does provide a sense of relief in a toxic and lawless atmosphere. Observing an alternative set of emotions and ethics is a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere ruled by a predatory state gloating over and encouraging masculine majoritarian consent. 

The Congress party has opted to create a positive campaign rather than repeating accusations against the regime. It reminds me of Chilean film-maker Pablo Larrain’s 2012 movie ‘No’. The film is based on advertising tactics used in the 1988 plebiscite on whether Augusto Pinochet should continue in power for another eight years, a situation similar to the upcoming vote in 2024 in India. An ‘advertising sub-committee’ formed in the film for the ‘no’ side took a “light-hearted, upbeat promotional approach stressing abstract concepts like ‘joy’ to challenge concerns that voting in a referendum under a notoriously brutal military junta was politically meaningless and dangerous”. That strategy, too, is similar to the Bharat Jodo Yatra stressing love instead of hatred. 

The campaign in Chile proved successful, with an overwhelming vote against Pinochet’s dreaded dictatorship. Again, we are passing through a similar context with a steep fall in the Happiness Index, rising inflation, growing fear and lawlessness and rampant unemployment. So, will Bharat Jodo Yatra yield a similar result? Or is our condition drastically different?

The BJP-RSS combination has successfully broken social groups into smaller units with massive fragmentation and social conflicts while combining them into a collective as Hindus. The exclusion of and discrimination against micro-identities at the local level are compensated through a sense of religious inclusion, even empowerment, at the national level. The Bharat Jodo Yatra is resorting to abstract messaging of togetherness, Indianess, peace and harmony for development. It, however, does not have localised and targeted messaging for specific social constituencies. It has not yet made any concrete promises or spelt out how a future Congress rule will appear. Will abstract messaging compensate for the concrete failures of the current regime? Will it offer succour to localised anxieties? As of now, it looks challenging to scale and supplant fears and prejudices that run deep. 

The problem is if the Congress party does not offer a universally inclusive abstract message, it does not have any other effective alternative to consolidated Hindu sensibilities. Further, by not spelling out who gets what, an abstract-universal message may add to localised anxieties instead of redeeming them. Is the universal message of love and peace not a ruse? Will it not short-change vulnerable and demographically insignificant social groups such as sub-castes again? These are pertinent queries, especially when the BJP has been able to combine specific interests with a common Hindu identity. Even if the mood lightens, will it, like in Chile, translate into votes for the Congress in 2024, especially given the route it has chosen for its Yatra? 

In Chile, fear and the distaste for dictatorship were well foregrounded. But in India, anxieties are laced with a cultural and religious discourse that has confused people about who they are. This discourse gives them a strong sense of belongingness, which is marked by civilizational continuity and minority exclusion. It was evident in the electoral outcomes in Uttar Pradesh, where the language of security and subsistence welfare, riding high on Hindu supremacism, compensated for poor governance

The driving force behind the BJP is providing a sense of security through exclusions and inclusions, and empowerment through discriminating against weaker sections. It is a classical case of Social Darwinism, whose history goes to Gujarat in 2002. But can raising issues concerning rights, unemployment and inflation bring about a commonality that cuts across social groups? Will it restore the loss of credibility that Congress has been facing as groups at the top and bottom of the social hierarchy abandon its social-democratic vision? 

Rahul Gandhi has been trying to replace culture with the language of institutions and its capture by the RSS. While this is a vital issue in a liberal democracy, will it mobilise emotions and the sense of belonging necessary for people to galvanise towards it without self-doubt? Here is the need for a much sharper narrative from the Congress party than currently visible. The party cannot afford not to address the narrative set by the BJP. It has to bust the myth of Hindu empowerment by linking the problems of unemployment and inflation to being an empowered Hindu—even as they address the perceived anxieties of Hindus vis-a-vis ‘growing security threat’. This is only possible by taking a steadfast position against obscurantism and possible expansionism of conservative Islamic forces, while standing firmly for the rights of Bilkis Bano and Umar Khalid. Without the former, you cannot do the latter, and attempts will look like appeasement, only fuelling the unstated anxieties of the majority community, groomed by relentless media bombardment. 

Unless these basal instincts are addressed, the message of love or development will not work, just like an assertive mobilisation of Hindus without accompanying development or economic growth does not augur well for the BJP. Today, the electorate is convinced of the mismanagement of the economy by the Modi government but continues to feel a deep sense of cultural belonging. The Aam Aadmi Party manages the complex situation by keeping silent on polarising issues and maintaining a quiet Hindu face along with social development. But the Congress party under Rahul Gandhi has taken on a more explicit ideological struggle without offering a sense of belonging. Merely talking about jobs and prices cannot offset cultural sensibilities.

Finally, will the Bharat Jodo Yatra help Congress revive and transform its organisation and internal culture? Perhaps it has the worst possible organisational culture marked by coteries, anxieties, internal competition and insecurities. There is no togetherness in Congress, only one-up-man-ship. It comes across as a culture of the spoils system encouraged in the party, at least since the 1980s, with a model of outsourcing ticket distribution to those with money and muscle power. These leaders cannot take on ideologically-motivated BJP cadre and RSS leaders. 

With all its limitations, the RSS inspires its cadre to work towards a larger cause. You will find any number of pracharaks working selflessly without asking what they get in return. Whereas in the Congress party, it is always a bargain system, marked by disillusionment and disappointments. It could well be an off-shoot of dynastic rule. Rahul Gandhi has done well to open up internal elections for a Congress president, who has to be from a relatively marginalised background (such as an OBC), even as the Gandhi family could be a binding moral force. Rahul’s persona, as much as Sonia’s, fits this arrangement. But managing all of this in less than two years is undoubtedly a Herculean task.

The author is an associate professor at the Center for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His book, Politics, Ethics and Emotions in ‘New India’, will be published by Routledge, London, in 2022. The views are personal.

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