New Delhi, India – Hundreds of people braved the bitter Himalayan cold on Monday as they gathered in Srinagar, the largest city in Indian-administered Kashmir, to join opposition leader Rahul Gandhi on the final day of his nearly 150-day “unity” march. across the country.
Launched on September 7, 2022 from the southernmost tip of the country Kanyakumari in the state of Tamil Nadu, the Bharat Jodo Yatra or Unite India March passed through 14 states covering more than 70 districts.
He saw a large number of people – from prominent members of civil society and activists to local leaders and celebrities – trying to keep pace with the 52-year-old scion of India’s most prominent political family during his journey covering a distance of nearly 3,500 km (2175 miles).
Political observers described the march as a last-ditch effort by Gandhi to revive the fortunes of his beleaguered Congress party ahead of national elections next year.
But for his supporters, the march was a bold attempt to bridge the nation’s political and religious divide, which they blame on the policies of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“This is a march to unite the people of the country against bigotry and hatred,” said Uzma Saqib, 48, who flew more than 2,000 km (1,243 miles) from the southern state of Telangana to join the march in her home state of Kashmir .
“He [Gandhi] resurrected as a man and a leader who could feel the pain and sympathize with the aam aadmi [common man]. And that is the leader our nation needs,” Saqib told Al Jazeera from the Kashmir Valley.
“He is our only hope.”
Reviving hopes of a ‘comeback’
The Congress party has ruled India for a total of nearly 60 years since independence in 1947, but its influence has declined sharply since losing national elections to the BJP in 2014, followed by a series of defeats in state and local elections in subsequent years.
It currently holds a clear majority in only three of India’s 31 states and union territories, with analysts pointing to the party’s lack of a clear ideological framework and its inability to shake off the influence of the Gandhi family for its poor electoral performance.
According to National Election Watch and the Association for Democratic Reforms, a total of 399 electoral candidates left Congress to join other parties between 2014 and 2021. During that period, the party lost 39 of 49 state elections.
And while many prominent Congress leaders have faced public disaffection over the years, it was under the de facto leadership of Rahul Gandhi — often portrayed as an incompetent and reluctant politician by sections of the Indian media — that the party’s electoral gains hit historic lows in the 2014 general elections. and 2019, winning only 44 and 52 seats out of 543 respectively.
Now, some observers say the march is the first step—albeit a very small one—in the right direction to pull the Congress and its progeny out of the political wilderness.
“This is not an easy process. It takes years for leaders to become national leaders,” said Rashid Kidwai, a veteran journalist and political analyst who has covered the Congress party for decades. “However, what he [Rahul Gandhi] what he has managed to do through this yatra is unconventional.”
However, Kidwai was quick to warn that the hike may not be enough.
“At the end of the day, it’s the vote that counts – and that’s where the yatra has insurmountable challenges,” he said, noting that the BJP had managed to increase its vote share from 31 percent in 2014 to 38 percent five years later.
“The job of a political party is to win elections. This is the barometer by which a party is judged. It remains to be seen how this yatra will turn out for the party’s electoral gains,” he added.
However, neither Congress leaders nor supporters said the march was specifically aimed at improving the party’s electoral performance. Instead, the Congress said the march sought to address “widespread unemployment and inflation, politics of hatred and division and over-centralization of the political system” in the country.
“This is a fight against the hateful attitude that prevails in our country, not a debate about who would win or lose,” Salman Khurshid, a senior Congress leader, told Al Jazeera.
Khurshid admitted that the party needs to step up its efforts to spread its message, but expressed confidence that the march had brought about a change in the way the public viewed both the Congress and Gandhi. “My political instinct says that people have come to see Rahul as someone who has the ability to attract people’s attention not just in pockets but across the country,” he said.
Just another “rebranding” effort.
But for the BJP, the march was just another failed attempt to rebrand Gandhi’s image.
“The aim of this yatra is not to unite the opposition as it is being claimed,” Gopal Krishna Agarwal, the BJP’s national spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.
“The Congress party is only trying to relaunch Rahul Gandhi and this effort has been going on for quite some time,” he said.
A survey this month found that only 13 percent of respondents saw the march as another exercise in “rebranding” Gandhi, while 29 percent strongly believed it was a success in uniting the masses.
However, 37 percent still believe the march will not win votes for the Congress, according to the CVoter survey conducted by the country’s media conglomerate India Today group.
Back in Srinagar, 32-year-old Ishita Sedha, a staunch Congress loyalist, was preparing to return to her hometown in Uttarakhand at the culmination of a 150-day journey.
“It was a spiritual journey for me,” Sedha told Al Jazeera, describing the trek as “life-changing”.
“Now I can proudly say that I have done something for my nation. And this whole hike has really been a learning ground for me that I aspire to continue on a personal level,” she said.