Members of India’s main opposition Congress party and thousands of supporters entered the capital on Saturday as part of a 5-month ‘unity march’ across the country seeking to challenge what they say to be a “hate-filled” version of the country under the Hindu nationalist government.
Joined by thousands of party workers and senior leaders, the march led by Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party and scion of the influential Gandhi family, entered New Delhi after traversing eight states.
Flanked by his mother, Sonia Gandhi, and sister, Priyanka Gandhi, the 52-year-old leader said the motive for his long walk across the country was to revive the once mighty Congress party and showcase the “real India”. contrary to the “hate-filled version” offered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“They will spread hate. We will spread love,” Gandhi said, referring to Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party.
Gandhi left for the “Bharat Jodo Yatra” or “Unite India March”, in Kanyakumari, a coastal city which is the southernmost tip of India, on September 7. The march, which is streamed live on a website, is expected to cover 3,570 kilometers (2,218 miles) and cross 12 states before ending in Indian-controlled Kashmir in February.
Passing through hundreds of villages and towns, the march has drawn farmers worried about rising debt, students complaining about rising unemployment, members of civil society and rights activists who say the India’s democratic health is in decline. Along the way, Gandhi also ditched his once clean-shaven appearance for a thick beard and slept in shipping container cabins during overnight layovers.
In multiple impassioned speeches during the march, Gandhi often targeted Modi and his government for doing very little to address India’s growing economic inequality, growing religious polarization and the threat posed by China. The armies of India and China have been locked in a bitter standoff in the mountainous region of Ladakh since 2020. Despite more than a dozen rounds of talks at the military, political and diplomatic levels, the standoff has dragged on .
Modi’s party dismissed Gandhi’s march and speeches as a political gimmick to regain its “lost credibility”.
“The character of Congress has been to break India,” the party said in a tweet on Saturday.
Hindu nationalism has surged under Modi and his party, who have come under fire for rising hate speech and violence against Muslims in recent years. Opponents say Modi’s silence is emboldening right-wing groups and threatening national unity, but his party has denied this.
Even though the Congress party says Gandhi’s cross-country march is primarily aimed at restoring an emotional connection with Indians, the electoral ambitions of the march are hard to miss.
With national elections less than 16 months away, this could determine whether India’s beleaguered opposition can battle the electoral juggernaut of Modi’s party which won majorities in 2014 and 2019.
Rasheed Kidwai, a political analyst, said Gandhi “employs politically correct methods during his long march which have the potential to do image correction for him”. But he warned that only election victories will ultimately determine whether Gandhi’s march is successful.
“Modi’s BJP has a success rate of around 90% in over 200 parliamentary seats where it competes directly with Congress. If this march reduced this rate, it would be a success. In a democracy, it’s important to be relevant and to win elections,” Kidwai said.
In 2019, Modi’s party won 303 of 543 parliamentary seats, thanks in part to its Hindu nationalist platform. Congress was far behind with 52 seats.
Since Modi first came to power in 2014, the Congress party has also suffered landslide defeats in a host of state polls. It currently governs only three of the 28 states.
Plagued by a leadership crisis and electoral routs, the party elected its first non-Gandhi president after 24 years in October in a bid to shed the image of being ruled by a single dynasty.
The party has been led by non-family members in the past, but Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have been at the helm since 1998.
The march helped Gandhi, according to the ratings.
In November, polling agency C-Voter said Gandhi’s approval rating had risen slightly since the start of the march, from 29% to 31%. Gandhi’s marginal improvement in popularity, however, is still well below Modi’s 66%.
The Independent Gt