Why Is Rahul Gandhi Walking 2,000 Miles Across India?

On the 76th day of the long march north through the entire length of India, Rahul Gandhi, descendant of a once powerful political dynasty, entered a textile town in the middle of the vast country Look, his face and hair are covered in dust. .

Gone are the luxuries that his opponents in India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party used to caricature him as powerful and aloof. Now, Mr. Gandhi is talking about blistering feet and the struggles of ordinary people. He is shaking hands with children, hugging elderly men and women, who stroke his hair and kiss his forehead, in what he hopes is a 2,000-mile journey out of the wilderness. politics for his once dominant Congress party.

Gandhi, 52, told supporters late last month in Burhanpur, in the state of Madhya Pradesh: “Every democracy is closed to us by the government: Parliament, media, elections. “There is no other way but to take to the streets to listen and connect with people.”

With national elections less than 16 months away, Gandhi’s march could decide whether India’s fractured political opposition can do anything to thwart its time-shaping ambitions. of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi or not.

India’s future as a multi-party democracy is in the balance. Mr. Modi, one of the most powerful leaders in India’s history, rebuilt his secular political base to favor the Hindu majority and marginalize Muslims as well as non-Muslims. other minority groups.

His imprint is so profound and his successes so complete that his subordinates say the BJP will continue to control the country for decades to come.

When the party tightens nationwide grip and its institutionsOpposition politicians complain that they have been pushed out of the forums where they can reach the masses in the democratic political cycle.

Parliament, once a prosperous debate room, is now mostly limited to ministerial speeches, with the ruling party avoid discuss important policy issues. The BJP, through a combination of pressure and the threat of withholding government advertising dollars, has largely terrified the traditional media.

After Mr. Gandhi arrived in Burhanpur, where a large crowd greeted him, with some watching from the rooftops and others from the thin branches, there was almost no mention of it on television programs. nightly picture.

Gandhi’s realization that it was necessary to travel across India, fighting for the glimmer of the limelight and presenting a new image, was the culmination of a reversal of fortune once unimaginable for the family. his family and party.

The Indian Congress Party has led the country for two-thirds of its 75 years of independence, and the Gandhi-Nehru clan has produced three prime ministers who have ruled for a total of nearly four decades.

But during Mr. Gandhi’s decade as the party’s official president or de facto leader, the party has faced repeated setbacks in national and state elections, and is now only there are 53 out of 543 seats in the National Assembly. BJP has 303 seats.

With the party increasingly defined not by ideas but by loyalty to the family that has been central to its history, the dilemma surrounding its decline has often been simplified to : can do nothing with or without Gandhis.

As the Congress party declined, its scandals and infighting became increasingly public. Party officials say the mayhem caused by the family’s inability to reconcile the warring factions has led to stagnation at the local level, and high-profile defections.

“Of course, this march is his last attempt to revive the party’s fortunes and strengthen his national image,” said Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor at Indiana University. . “But beyond fanfare, he failed to map out an alternative, clear vision for the country.”

Mr. Gandhi said he began his journey — which will last about 150 days as he and his entourage of 120 travel about 13 miles a day, sleeping in heavy-duty trucks — to help unite a country that he says is deeply polarized by Mr. Gandhi. Modi’s Hindu majority politics.

Since September, as he travels through villages and small towns across seven states, his march has attracted a huge following: farmers facing a cycle of debt without a way out. ; Indigenous peoples fight to protect the rainforest from powerful developers; students worry about their ability to advance in an economy that doesn’t offer enough jobs.

In attacking the ruling party, Gandhi voiced the worries of a large segment of the population suffering from the deeply unequal realities of an economy plagued by high youth unemployment. and inflation increased.

Amar Thakur, who supported the BJP in the last election and met Gandhi in a meeting in Burhanpur to listen to local grievances, said: “As he patiently listened to us and spoke Regarding the pain of ordinary people, my opinion of him has changed. . “Enough hate now, I’ll vote for his party.”

Congress leaders said Gandhi’s simple message of solidarity was the party’s first major ideological attack against the idea of ​​Hinduism first reinforced by the BJP.

“This is our last roll of the dice,” said Jairam Ramesh, a former federal minister who walked with Gandhi. “We are putting everything we have in there. If we don’t make a difference through it, that’s a problem for both of us as a party and an ideology.”

Mr. Modi’s imprint on Indian politics is so indelible that Mr. Gandhi, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has imitated him during his travels across the country even when he introduced himself as a substitute.

Gandhi’s forehead is often adorned with a red dot, or tilak, a sign of Hindu devotion. He has shed his previous smooth appearance to have a beard that is growing day by day. He often participates in temple visits and religious ceremonies while stopping in villages and towns.

Such long marches are part of a long political tradition in India dating back to the country’s independence struggle. In the 1990s, when roles were reversed, the BJP staged a similar march, rallying around the construction of a Hindu temple that once housed a Mughal-era mosque. That march helped rekindle the BJP’s ideological base and set the stage for its subsequent rise.

It is far from clear whether Mr. Gandhi will be able to bring his party back from the path that is no longer relevant in national politics. But he seems to be leaning on a two-pronged strategy – placing himself at the center of an attempt to build a narrative and direction while creating some distance by handing over the party chairmanship to one person. someone outside the family.

After a long period of outrage in the ranks of Congress over the Gandhi family’s refusal to share leadership, in October the party elected an 80-year-old loyalist as its first non-Gandhi president in 24 years. .

To some critics, the selection of the new leader, as well as the march’s sole focus on Mr. Gandhi, made it clear that the family would not let go in meaningful ways that could fix it. party dysfunction and eroding support.

Whether the fortunes of the Congress party change or not, it is clear that Gandhi’s message resonated with many who viewed India’s direction under Modi with disappointment.

On a recent morning at the border between the states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, hundreds of young men began to chase Mr. Gandhi, who had entered a square rope held by dozens of policemen.

Syed Sharaft Ali, a Muslim day worker, said he left home early in the morning and walked for three hours to show support for Gandhi’s march and to tell him polarization How religion has divided friends and destroyed families.

As Mr. Gandhi approached, the crowd pushed Mr. Ali, who he rolled among the officers as they tried to stop well-wishers.

Mr. Gandhi motioned for Mr. Ali to enter the ring. They talked for a minute.

“At least he hugged me,” Mr Ali said. “Other leaders don’t even want to look at us.”

Mr. Ali then returned to his village with wet eyes; Mr. Gandhi continued through the dust.

Mujib Mashal Contribution reports from New Delhi.


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