(Bloomberg) -- After more than 100 days walking nearly the entire length of India, Rahul Gandhi, scion of the nation’s most famous political dynasty, stood before a shivering crowd in rural Himachal Pradesh as a cheer went up.
Bearded and clad in a white t-shirt, Gandhi bore none of the vestiges of wealth or elitism that have smudged his family’s name in recent years. In the village of Ghatota, Gandhi’s message to supporters on a cold day this month was a simple one: “We started this march to bring people together.”
His journey through India — a 2,170 mile trek from the country’s southernmost tip to the icy north of Kashmir — marks a do-or-die moment for Gandhi, 52, who was broadly written off after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party defeated his party in the last two general elections. Once an unbeatable force in Indian politics, Gandhi’s Congress Party has struggled to connect with voters and overcome a reputation blotted by corruption scandals and leadership exoduses.
With India’s national election less than 15 months away, Gandhi is trying to divert attention from Modi, who is angling for a third consecutive term. By stopping in the smallest and most remote of villages, Gandhi has sold himself as one among the masses, and as a leader capable of counteracting what government critics see as the BJP’s efforts to push Hindu majoritarian views in a secular nation.
“We will keep on opening shops of love in the bazaar of hate,” Gandhi said at a press conference in the northern town of Hoshiarpur in Punjab. “The aim of the march is to stand against violence, unemployment, price rises and income inequality.”
The trek is rich with symbolism, recalling a similar journey made in 1930 by Mahatma Gandhi, India’s revered independence hero, who walked in protest of taxes imposed by British colonizers.
“Rahul Gandhi — ceaseless, purposeful — is the nucleus of the energy” that has inspired people to join him on his march, said Anshul Avijit, a Congress leader. The BJP has downplayed and criticized the march, saying it’s an effort to divide India.
But some political observers are still doubtful that Gandhi’s walk will do much to dent the BJP’s dominance on the national stage — unless the Congress Party figures out a way to widen its base. More than a third of respondents in a recent survey said the march created buzz, but wouldn’t change India’s current political hierarchy.
Modi’s approval rating consistently hovers around 60% and party coffers are full. The BJP’s income for 2021 topped the combined wealth of the next seven largest national parties. The Congress Party holds just 52 of 543 seats in India’s lower house of parliament. The BJP has 303.
Modi’s background — the son of a tea seller who rose on his own merit — is a hard narrative to beat. The electorate has increasingly soured on an old guard embodied by the Gandhis, who are frequently caricatured by the BJP as an Anglicized elite with little connection to the lives of most Indians.
Gandhi’s march “doesn’t have the capacity to translate the crowd into votes,” said Sanjay Kumar, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. “Nowadays nationalism is a very big issue on which people vote.”
Still, gloomy forecasts haven’t stopped the Congress Party from pushing ahead. Senior officials are weighing whether Gandhi should do another walk from India’s west to east, and a door-knocking campaign to highlight failures of the Modi government kicked off on Jan. 26. Polls suggest the march has helped Gandhi’s image. Since last June, his approval rating has jumped from 42.6% to 50%, according to data provided to Bloomberg News by the tracker CVoter.
“The march has succeeded in laying out the ideological stall that counters Hindu nationalism and the BJP,” said Shruti Kapila, a professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. “It has also defined the coming battle lines for 2024 in terms of personalities — namely of Modi contra Gandhi.”
In modern Indian history, the Gandhis are akin to political royalty. After India achieved independence from the British in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rahul’s great-grandfather, served as the first prime minister. He was followed in that role by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s father. Both were assassinated, drawing comparisons to the Kennedy family.
In 1998, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul’s mother, reluctantly assumed leadership of the Congress Party, a post she held for nearly two decades. She led the party back to power in the 2004 general election, and eventually passed more duties to Rahul and his younger sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the party’s general secretary.
Leading up to the 2014 elections, the Congress Party’s popularity cratered from corruption scandals, policy paralysis and high inflation. India’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2010, a high-profile get for a country eager to shed its reputation for poor governance, was marred by allegations that officials stole funds and made extravagant purchases.
To shed that image, Gandhi has opted for the life of an ascetic on his march, walking across a landscape partitioned by watery rice paddies and mango orchards, and eating simple meals with farmers, small business owners and former freedom fighters.
Earlier this month, on the 124th day of his walk, called Bharat Jodo Yatra, a crowd trailed Gandhi in northern India. They whooped in the streets, danced on tractors and waved the India’s tricolored flag. In some villages, huge cutouts of a grizzled-looking Gandhi dotted the roadside and children climbed onto rooftops to catch a glimpse of the politician.
The march, which covered 14 states, ended Monday in Srinagar with the unfurling of India’s national flag at the region’s Congress Party headquarters. Leaders of about a dozen opposition parties plan to address a rally in a show of solidarity.
The impact of Gandhi’s walk will come into greater focus later this year, when local elections kick off in several states. But some Modi supporters said they were already rethinking their votes.
Sukhvinder Singh, who backed the BJP in the 2014 and 2019 national elections, said he may switch his allegiance. Only a man “humiliated and mocked” by his enemies would “walk in this bone-chilling cold with just a t-shirt,” Singh said. Gandhi’s struggle for dignity moved him.
“Indians love stubborn politicians,” he said.
(Updates with end of the march in 19th paragraph)
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.