Rameez Ansari looks across the border
With its back to the walls Indian Congress Party had started a nation-wide march dubbed as Bharat Jodo Yatra with the aim to revive its fortune. The once-dominant Congress controls less than 10 per cent of the elected seats in parliament’s lower house and has been decimated in two successive general elections by the BJP, most recently in 2019 under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. Muslims attracted by Rahul Gandhi’s march Narendra Modi remains India’s most popular politician by a substantial margin and is widely expected to win a third victory in 2024 as over 60 per cent of respondents across the country prefer Modi as prime minister to 30.3 per cent choosing Rahul Gandhi.
Interestingly, despite electing a new head of the party who is from south of the country, yet the Congress is persisting in placing Rahul Gandhi, its erstwhile head at the front of the march. Rahul Gandhi, the 52-year-old bachelor, a fitness buff with a thick salt-and-pepper beard, walks about 25 km per day stopping for the night in a trailer van that moves with him. His grueling march that will cover about 3,500 km is a throwback to the padayatras or foot journeys through the rural heartland by past leaders and it is considered a potent tool to connect the leadership with the common people.
This modern version of the march has the teeming millions the opportunity to face time with a leader who has seemed distant and aloof in the past. Congress is expected that the crowds Rahul Gandhi is attracting will eventually translate into votes. This expectation may be having some effect as is pointed out by the polls in the southern state of Karnataka, which holds elections this summer, where the percentage of respondents satisfied with Rahul Gandhi has jumped from 39 per cent in January 2022 to nearly 58 per cent immediately after the march passed through the state.
Long seen by critics as a reluctant politician without the earthy skills to take on Modi, Rahul Gandhi’s cross-country march has also provided him a platform to hold the BJP to account on issues like communal polarisation brought by its muscular Hindu nationalist agenda, unemployment and inflation. Rahul Gandhi has got good response from Muslims who have remained traditional voters of Congress but with the passage of time this vote bank has been completely eroded. In the largest Indian state, Uttar Pradesh, there are a large number of Muslim voters and they proved to swing elections in favour of Congress but now it is seen divide between SP and BSP and this position is constantly observed since the last three decades. It is however now pointed out by observers that if the trend of minority support for the Congress consolidates, then there are 140 odd parliamentary constituencies in the country where minorities play a significant role in deciding the final winner.
The purpose of Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the areas largely inhabited by Muslims through Bharat Jodo Yatra is to bring back the Muslim vote bank that has shifted. That was the reason that Muslim leaders were given a place on Rahul Gandhi’s platform and when he told BJP to be a party that would break him, he appealed to join Congress. Consequently, the march entered such areas with many Muslim leaders belonging to the Congress including Salman Khurshid, Naseemuddin Siddiqui, former MP Rashid Alvi, Zafar Ali Naqvi and Meem Afzal on the stage along with Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi. The Muslim areas from where the Bharat Jodo Yatra passed witnessed presence of burqa-clad women, to ulemas, a lot of people were seen walking with Rahul Gandhi or standing in queues to greet him.
Salman Khurshid, who participated in the Bharat Jodo Yatra mentioned that Muslims have stood with the Congress for generations and will continue to stand. Congress is the only party which is fighting on the streets against BJP. Rahul Gandhi has come out to unite the country and he has a whole army with him. Zafar Ali Naqvi said that he has taken to the streets against those who spread hatred in India and is working to spread love from house to house. Naseemuddin Siddiqui said that only Congress can compete with BJP at the national level. Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi have come out against the work of spreading hatred in the society. The people are seen standing with the Congress and Rahul Gandhi’s campaign.
Acknowledging Muslim warm participation in the march, Congress leader are quite confident that Muslims, particularly of Uttar Pradesh are no longer enamoured of the Samajwadi Party. The defeat of the SP candidate in the by-election to Rampur Lok Sabha seat in June last year and later the victory of the BJP in the by-poll to Rampur assembly seat, a strong hold of the Muslims who have over 50 per cent population in Rampur city, has disillusioned the Muslims. Congress supporters point out that Muslims have concluded they have had enough of the regional parties and it is time to return to the national party. TW