Who walks with Rahul Gandhi and why it matters

Bharat Bhushan

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) completed 100 days last Friday, covering two-thirds of the planned route. As the BJY threads its way across North India, it is in danger of becoming like Indian Premier League cricket, where cheerleaders enhance viewership, but serious cricket suffers.

Recent events make it increasingly doubtful whether Rahul Gandhi has been able to build a firm political narrative by undertaking such an arduous journey. Thoughtless photo-ops may be dissipating whatever political goodwill is earned, making the BJY look more like a picnic. Given security concerns and the need to send the right political signals, who walks with Rahul Gandhi is the result of a highly orchestrated process. That is why it is pertinent to question who is allowed a photo-op and what signals it sends out.

Among such conspicuous images were those of Rahul Gandhi striding along with brother-in-law Robert Vadra, sister Priyanka Gandhi and their daughter Mirai Vadra in Bundi in the Rajasthan leg of the BJY. The en famille photos reinforce the perception that the Congress remains a family enterprise despite holding party elections with much fanfare and appointing a non-family person to the job. It appears, after all, that there are other members of the family waiting to emerge as future leaders.

Moreover, Robert Vadra is currently on bail in a money laundering case filed by the Enforcement Directorate (ED). Already, Vadra’s presence at the start of the BJY in Kanyakumari had given fodder to the BJP to pan it as “Parivar Jodo (Unite the family)” and “Bhrashtachar Jodo (Unite for corruption) Yatra”. The courts may eventually find Vadra innocent in the cases filed against him by ED and the CBI. However, while he is still under a shadow, his presence diminishes the public branding of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress.

Another controversial photo op was Rahul Gandhi’s interaction with an economist well known for his neo-liberal economic policies. Before being brought in by the Manmohan Singh government into the Finance Ministry and then appointed to the Reserve Bank of India as governor, Raghuram Rajan was Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund. The IMF is the fountainhead of neoliberalism which rests on the premise that nations must promote free market capitalism, focus on limiting government spending, reduce government regulation and dilute public ownership. How exactly will Rahul Gandhi build an alternative pro-poor political and economic narrative that seeks to reduce inequality through state intervention if he is seen rubbing shoulders with someone who stands for the opposite?

Neoliberalism is being recognised the world over as a potential danger to democracy, workers’ rights and to the sovereignty of nations, as it forces the political class to promote greater free trade, deregulate industry, reduce income tax and capital gains tax irrespective of their financial and social responsibility towards their citizens. It encourages the state to give corporations greater power while worsening social inequality. Regardless of Raghuram Rajan’s personal integrity, those are the political and economic policies he ideologically subscribes to.

Once again, the only one who gains from the photo op with Rahul Gandhi is Raghuram Rajan, who, from being a mere economic technocrat who served both governments, begins to acquire the sheen of statesmanship. In his resignation letter of June 2016, he had not ruled out the option of returning to India, saying, “I will, of course, always be available to serve my country when needed.”

The potential allies of the Congress in the states joining the BJY makes immense sense as it presents a sense of Opposition solidarity. It makes sense for him to be seen with those activists who, like Aruna Roy or Medha Patkar, have devoted their lives to the rights of the underprivileged. But that is not the case with everyone who becomes part of the arranged photo op with him. Why are stars and celebrities who drop in to walk with Rahul Gandhi also presented as the public face of the BJY?

What do celebs bring to the BJY? One could argue that their walking beside Rahul Gandhi represents the formation of a broad social coalition against the divisive politics prevalent in the country. Celebrity guest appearances also attract media coverage. Such media coverage, however, is ephemeral and self-delusional as ordinary people do not identify with celebrities. They bring no mass of supporters with them. These ritualistic photo opportunities, therefore, do little for the BJY except to get the chatterati briefly interested.

Rahul Gandhi should keep the connection with the poor and the marginalised as the focus of his mission. The people who should be seen with him ought to be labour leaders who have been fighting for the farmers and tribal activists. Are they missing from BJY? It is much better to be photographed with the suffering masses and give them a voice by telling their stories rather than try to become a story yourself with glamorous celebs. Nor is there a concerted attempt to convey to the public what the people he met during the BJY have told him. Those conversations need to be knit into his transformative political narrative.

The people who should have the first right to walk hand in hand with Rahul Gandhi should be the Congress party’s grassroots workers. They should feel enthused by the BJY. This is especially important as the impact of the BJY on the voters remains unclear. Witness the way the Congress was routed in Gujarat. Nor can one argue that the Congress’ Himachal Pradesh win was even remotely connected with the BJY.

The BJY traversed for three weeks through Karnataka, yet internal party feedback apparently shows there was little impact on the voters. As it traverses through Rajasthan, it is also unclear whether the state unit will remain united till the legislative elections a year later. The Congress cannot hope to become the alternative for disgruntled voters without developing an alternative narrative that would attract people. The moot question, however, is: whether that is happening with the BJY or if Rahul Gandhi is in danger of being seen as a messenger without a message.