Oto cross the Indian campaign alongside Rahul Gandhi for a while and one can imagine witnessing the rebirth of a political movement. Driving through the northern state of Himachal Pradesh on a winter’s day last week, the leader of Congress, India’s main opposition party, was announced in every town and village. Dozens of people jostled for space behind windows and on rooftops, brandishing phones and sometimes tablets to record a glimpse of him. Sporting a white T-shirt and a bushy beard, Mr Gandhi walked inside a rectangular security cordon formed by police officers wearing tracksuits and carrying a yellow rope. Every few minutes the caravan would stop and security guards would hustle passers-by inside the cordon for a photo op and a brief chat.
The ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ (roughly ‘uniting India march’) is an effort to boost Congress and its leader ahead of general elections scheduled for next year. Both need it. Congress, which again in 2009 won twice as many seats as its Hindu nationalist opponent, the Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp), risks becoming electorally irrelevant. It controls only three of India’s 28 states and less than 10% of seats in the lower house of parliament. The bjp has 16 states, 56% of the seats in the lower house and Narendra Modi, the prime minister, by far India’s most popular leader. He is the preferred Prime Minister of more than 60% of Indians; half as many would choose Mr. Gandhi.
From the ruling Congress dynasty – son, grandson and great-grandson of prime ministers – he began his walk on the southern tip of India last September. By the time it ends in Kashmir on January 30, it will have covered over 2,200 miles. Even in the Indian tradition of political marches, this is a considerable effort. Mohandas Gandhi (no relation) walked 240 miles on his 1930 Salt March, a seminal act of civil disobedience; A previous bjp leader made a similar route to Mr. Gandhi in 1991 by car. Leading Congress for more than a decade, serving as party chairman and, as now, de facto leader, Mr Gandhi, 52, was suspected his heart was not in the family business. A slight increase in his ratings suggests that his efforts are helping to appease him. “He had this image of not being engaged. It was a pretty visible way to overcome that,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political scientist.
Yet even though Mr. Gandhi is a better politician than many Indians think, he could not reverse the fortunes of Congress on his own. Several unsuccessful attempts to boost the party by promoting its princely leader have already proven this. On the contrary, Congress, a bickering leftist coalition impeached around its ruling family, must restore what it stands for. “We left the space of ideology, first to the left and then to the right,” says Jairam Ramesh, a former Congress leader from Karnataka who accompanied Mr Gandhi throughout. A goal of the yatrasay Mr. Gandhi and his cronies, is to renew the Congress ideologically by reaffirming its secular values.
They describe the yatra with the aim of promoting love and unity against the hatred and division fostered by Mr. Modi’s anti-Muslim party. This recalls the principles of Mr. Gandhi’s great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. He and his followers did not seek to banish religion from public life, as secularists had done in France. Yet they saw the prioritization of one religious group over another as a guarantee of conflict in a diverse country with a history of religious violence, particularly Hindu-Muslim. For them, secular liberal institutions, including the judiciary and bureaucracy, represented the country’s best hope for cohesion.
Over the past three decades, and especially since Mr. Modi came to power in 2014, the bjp eroded that legacy. First propelled to national power in the 1990s by the communal riots that its leaders had helped provoke, the bjp considers India as a Hindu country too long suborned to its religious minorities, mainly Muslims.
The rallying of Hindus against the remaining 20% of India’s population helped to mask the deep caste and class differences within the majority group. He also succeeded in redefining Indian nationalism as a Hindu cause that the bjp is able to mock his secular detractors as unpatriotic. For many Indians, secularism and anti-Indianism have become, if not synonymous, at least linked. “Many Hindus no longer want to consider secularism a good thing,” says Christophe Jaffrelot of Sciences Po in Paris. “The opposition will have to recreate the appetite for this.”
Mr. Gandhi seems to be trying to do this by going beyond his atheist grandfather to the interreligious harmony preached by Mohandas Gandhi. He traveled parts of the yatra (a word that usually refers to a pilgrimage) barefoot and often wearing a tilac, a red mark evoking Hindu piety. He referred to the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu text, when presenting the yatra like a tapasiya, or penance. Yet he emphasized religious inclusion. After the yatra entering the state of Punjab, he donned a turban to pay homage to the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the spiritual center of Sikhism.
He could be onto something. Surveys of middle-class young adults, a bjp constituency, suggest that they are less Islamophobic than their parents. Moreover, if there is a better way for Mr. Gandhi to present the Congress as an alternative to the Hindu nationalists, it is not obvious. Despite Mr. Modi’s pro-business rhetoric and Congress’s pro-poor rhetoric, the two parties adopt broadly similar economic and social policies. But while Mr Gandhi can sense an opportunity, his comforting campaign has nothing to do with an ideological counterbalance to Mr Modi’s message of Hindu pride. Reviving secularism would require an alternative stance on contentious issues that have become vote winners for the bjp, such as uniform civil laws for minorities and interpretations of history, says Mehta. “Rescuing secular pluralism from the accusation of being anti-Hindu means giving a secular response to community issues. You must explain what institutional measures you will take. It is not enough to say “we are secular”.
If it wants to revive the demand for a large secular party, Congress will have to meet this challenge. There are currently no signs that he plans to do so. In theory, he could continue to languish. Indeed, the combined vote share of the two major parties seems remarkably stable, at around 50% since the 1980s. They have simply changed position. In 1991, Congress won 36% of the vote and the bjp 20%; in 2019, the bjp won 37% of the vote and Congress just under 20%. Yet that could change. The bjp was supported in opposition by its cadre of deeply ideological activists. Congress, having no comparable ideology or foot soldiers, could collapse.
Half an hour after the yatra drove through Ganuspur in Punjab, its only traces left were a lorry loaded with cardboard cutouts of Mr Gandhi and grumpy police clearing barricades. To secure the future of his party and of secular liberalism in India, Mr. Gandhi will have to convince Indians that his journey through their towns and villages is more than meets the eye. ■