Congress leader Rahul Gandhi launches 'Unite India' march to engage voters

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi (centre) will go on a 3,570km, five-month long march in a gambit to gain political relevance. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - Congress leader Rahul Gandhi will go on a five-month long march across India, from the south to the north, in a fresh gambit to gain political relevance.

Called the "Bharat Jodo" or "Unite India" march, it was flagged off on Wednesday from Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of mainland India, in Tamil Nadu state.

Mr Gandhi will ultimately cover 3,570 km, weaving through cities and villages and ending the march in the northern city of Srinagar, the capital city of Jammu and Kashmir.

The 53-year-old plans to reach out to voters across the country, while also highlighting issues like unemployment, inflation and religious harmony.

Mr Gandhi will be joined by over 100 party members except his mother Sonia Gandhi who is out of the country for health check-ups.

He preceded the launch with a prayer meeting in Sriperumbudur for his late father, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated there in May 1991 by a suicide bomber belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The separatist rebel group targeted him for sending Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) into Sri Lanka.

"I lost my father to the politics of hate and division. I will not lose my beloved country to it too," tweeted Mr Gandhi.

The march is aimed at mounting political opposition to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which the Congress party and other critics accuse of deepening religious polarisation through its Hindu nationalist agenda.

The BJP, in turn, said there was nothing to unify.

"India is not disintegrated... how can you say so?," BJP leader Sidharth N. Singh asked, according to the Indian media.

Mr Gandhi comes from the Gandhi Nehru family who has given the country three prime ministers. Besides his father, his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru and grandmother Indira Gandhi were also prime minister.

But the politician has struggled to make his mark in Indian politics. His party performed dismally in back-to-back general elections in 2014 and 2019, unable to stop the BJP juggernaut powered by popular Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The BJP has led a sustained attack on Mr Gandhi and derided "dynasty politics", a charge that the Congress has struggled to counter.

The Congress has also been racked by internal fighting and a leadership vacuum. Mr Gandhi quit as party president in 2019, but has continued to lead the party. His mother, who has faced health issues in recent years, is the president.

Elections are now set to be held next month for the president's post.

There have also been high-profile exits from the party, with a group of senior leaders openly voicing the need for change and more transparency in internal elections.

The most recent exit was senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, who accused Mr Gandhi of sidelining senior leaders.

Long political marches have been something of a tradition in India. The most effective one so far is independence hero Mahatma Gandhi's 380km Salt March, a mass civil disobedience movement, in 1930 against the British who quit India in 1947.

In 2016, Mr Rahul Gandhi undertook a 26-day march in Uttar Pradesh state. But the party performed poorly in the 2017 state elections.

"Successful marches had all been in the pre-Internet era. This foot march can be high on optics but low on substance. The Bharat Jodo idea is very utopian. There is a risk it may not resonate with the masses," said author and journalist Rasheed Kidwai.

The Congress, apart from general election losses, is in power in only two out of 28 states in India.

"Nothing seems to be working for him for a variety of reasons. He is now trying to take politics in another direction."

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