Gandhi walks 2,000 miles to challenge Modi in 2024 elections

(Bloomberg) — After walking nearly the entire length of India for more than 100 days, Rahul Gandhi, scion of the country’s most famous political dynasty, stood before a shuddering crowd in rural Himachal Pradesh as cheers erupted.

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Bearded and wearing a white T-shirt, Gandhi wore none of the traces of wealth or elitism that have tarnished his family’s name in recent years. In the village of Ghatota, Gandhi’s message to supporters on a cold day this month was simple: “We started this march to bring people together.”

His journey across India – a 3,500-kilometer trek from the southern tip of the country to frigid northern Kashmir – marks a do-or-die moment for 52-year-old Gandhi, who was largely written off after the Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had defeated his party. in the last two general elections. Once an unbeatable force in Indian politics, Gandhi’s Congress Party has struggled to connect with voters and overcome a reputation tarnished by corruption scandals and leadership exodus.

With India’s national elections less than 15 months away, Gandhi is trying to divert attention from Modi, who is angling for a third consecutive term. By stopping in the smallest and most remote villages, Gandhi has sold himself as one of the masses, and as a leader capable of countering what government critics see as the BJP’s efforts to suppress majority Hindu beliefs in a secular nation. push.

“We will continue to open love shops in the bazaar of hate,” Gandhi said at a press conference in the northern Punjab city of Hoshiarpur. “The aim of the march is to stand up against violence, unemployment, price increases and income inequality.”

Rich in symbolism, the trek recalls a similar journey made in 1930 by Mahatma Gandhi, India’s revered independence hero, who walked in protest against taxes imposed by British colonizers.

“Rahul Gandhi – unceasing, purposeful – is the core energy” that has inspired people to join him on his march, said Anshul Avijit, a congress leader.

But some political observers still doubt that Gandhi’s walk, which ends in the city of Srinagar on Monday, will do much to diminish the BJP’s dominance on the national scene – unless the Congress party figures out a way to broaden its base. More than a third of respondents in a recent survey said the march created buzz but would not change India’s current political hierarchy.

Modi’s approval rating is constantly hovering around 60% and the party box is full. The BJP’s income for 2021 surpassed the combined wealth of the next seven largest national parties. The Congress Party has only 52 of the 543 seats in the Indian lower house. The BJP has 303.

Modi’s background – the son of a tea seller who rose on his own – is a story that is hard to beat. The electorate has become increasingly soured by an old guard embodied by the Gandhis, often caricatured by the BJP as an Anglicized elite with little connection to the lives of most Indians.

Gandhi’s march “does not have the capacity to turn the crowd into votes,” said Sanjay Kumar, a professor at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. “Nowadays nationalism is a very big topic that people vote for.”

Still, gloomy forecasts haven’t stopped the Congress Party from pushing ahead. Senior officials are considering whether Gandhi should take another walk from India’s west to east, and a door-knocking campaign began on January 26 to highlight the failures of the Modi government. Polls show that the march helped Gandhi’s image. Since last June, his approval rating has jumped from 42.6% to 50%, according to data provided to Bloomberg News by the tracker CVoter.

“The march succeeded in establishing the ideological position that opposes Hindu nationalism and the BJP,” said Shruti Kapila, a professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. “It has also defined the upcoming battle lines for 2024 in terms of personalities – namely of Modi versus Gandhi.”

In modern Indian history, the Gandhis are related to political royalty. After India gained independence from the British in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rahul’s great-grandfather, was the first prime minister. He was followed in that role by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father. Both were killed, drawing comparisons to the Kennedy family.

In 1998, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother, reluctantly took over the leadership of the Congress Party, a position she held for nearly two decades. She led the party back to power in the 2004 general election, eventually handing over more duties to Rahul and his younger sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the general secretary of the party.

Leading up to the 2014 election, the Congress Party’s popularity plummeted due to corruption scandals, policy paralysis and high inflation. India’s host of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, a high-profile move for a country eager to shake off its reputation for poor governance, was marred by allegations that officials stole money and made extravagant purchases.

To shake off that image, Gandhi chose the life of an ascetic on his march, walking through a landscape separated by watery paddy fields and mango groves, eating simple meals with farmers, small business owners and former freedom fighters.

Earlier this month, on the 124th day of his walk, called Bharat Jodo Yatra, a crowd followed Gandhi in northern India. They cheered through the streets, danced on tractors and waved the tricolor flag of India. In some villages, huge cutouts of a gray-looking Gandhi lined the road and children climbed onto rooftops to catch a glimpse of the politician.

The impact of the march will receive more attention later this year as local elections begin in several states. But some Modi supporters said they were already reconsidering their votes.

Sukhvinder Singh, who supported the BJP in the 2014 and 2019 national elections, said he may switch allegiances. Only a man who has been “humiliated and mocked” by his enemies would “walk in this freezing cold wearing just a T-shirt,” Singh said. Gandhi’s struggle for dignity moved him.

“Indians like stubborn politicians,” he said.

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