‘Congress party rally across India to repair image’

NEW DELHI: An old Bollywood film song playing on loop exhorted travellers to keep walking as opposition leader Rahul Gandhi and an entourage marched through northern India’s Panipat city on a frigid morning last week, trailed by hun-dreds of people.
Gandhi began walking the length of the country over 100 days ago from India’s southern tip, hoping to repair the bat-tered image of his Congress party and take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dominant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Stopping to greet onlookers and holding public meetings, Gandhi plans to round off his march in northernmost Kash-mir by January end.
“Long live Rahul Gandhi,” Congress supporters shouted, as the scion of a dynasty that has given India three prime min-isters marched through Pa-nipat on his Bharat Jodo Yatra, or Unite India March. The 52-year-old, a fitness buff with a thick salt-and-pepper beard, walks about 25 km (15 miles) per day, stopping for the night in a trailer van that moves with him.

Gandhi’s gruelling march that will cover about 3,500 km (2,200 miles) is a throwback to the padayatras or foot journeys through the rural heartland by past leaders, including independence hero Mahatma Gandhi nearly a century ago. The two Gandhis are not related.

This modern version of the march gives hundreds of thousands of people face time with a leader who has seemed distant and aloof in the past. Con-gress is hoping that the crowds Gandhi is attracting will eventually translate into votes.

“Now that he has hit the streets, people can see who he is,” said Dharamvir Arya, a 55-year-old farmer who had come to see Gandhi in Panipat. “If he remains in a bungalow, hidden, how will people know what he is like?”

Polling agency CVoter, which has tracked Gandhi’s approval ratings in nine states – four of which will hold local elec-tions this year – as part of na-tionwide monthly surveys of 30,000 respondents, found the Congress leader’s popularity has risen markedly in most states through which he has marched.

In the southern state of Karnataka, which holds elections this summer, the percentage of respondents satisfied with Gandhi has jumped from 39% in January 2022 to nearly 58% immediately after the march passed through.

The once-dominant Congress controls less than 10% of the elected seats in parliament’s lower house and has been decimated in two successive gen-eral elections by the BJP, most recently in 2019 under Gandhi’s leadership.

Modi remains India’s most popular politician by a substantial margin and is widely expected to win a third victory in 2024. Over 60% of respond-ents across the country prefer Modi as prime minister to 30.3% choosing Gandhi, according to CVoter. –Agencies