New Delhi, India – Hundreds of people braved the bitter Himalayan cold on Monday as they gathered in Srinagar, the largest city in Indian-administered Kashmir, to join opposition leader Rahul Gandhi on the final day of his nearly 150-day “unity” march across the country.
Launched on September 7, 2022 from the southernmost tip of Kanyakumari in the state of Tamil Nadu, the Bharat Jodo Yatra or India Unification March has passed through 14 states covering more than 70 districts.
A large number of people – from prominent members of civil society and activists to local leaders and celebrities – were seen trying to keep up with the 52-year-old scion of India’s most famous political family during his journey of nearly 3,500 km (2,175 miles).
Political observers described the march as a last-gasp attempt by Gandhi to revitalize the fortunes of his beleaguered Congress party ahead of next year’s national elections.
But for his supporters, the march was a bold attempt to bridge the country’s political and religious divides, which they blame on the policies of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“This is a march to unite the people of the country against bigotry and hatred,” said Uzma Sakib, 48, who flew more than 2,000 km (1,243 miles) from the southern state of Telangana to join the march in her home state of Kashmir.
“He [Gandhi] has risen as a person and a leader who can feel the pain and empathize with the aam aadmi [common man]. And this is the kind of leader our nation needs,” Sakib told Al Jazeera from the Kashmir Valley.
“He is our only hope.”
Revival of hope for a ‘return’
The Congress party has governed India for a total of almost 60 years since independence in 1947, but its influence has waned sharply after its national election defeat to the BJP in 2014, followed by a series of defeats in state and local elections in the years that followed.
It currently holds a clear majority in only three of India’s 31 states and union territories, and analysts point to the party’s lack of a clear ideological framework and its inability to shake off the influence of the Gandhi family for its poor electoral performance.
According to National Election Watch and the Association for Democratic Reforms, a total of 399 electoral candidates left Congress to join other parties between 2014 and 2021. During that period, the party lost 39 of 49 state elections.
And while many prominent Congress leaders have faced public disaffection over the years, under the de facto leadership of Rahul Gandhi – often portrayed by sections of the Indian media as an inept and reluctant politician – the party’s electoral gains reached historically low levels in the 2014 and 2019 general elections. winning only 44 or 52 places out of 543.
Now, some observers say the march is the first step—albeit a very small one—in the right direction to pull the Congress and its progeny out of the political wilderness.
“It is not an easy process. It takes years for leaders to become national leaders,” said Rasheed Kidwai, a veteran journalist and political analyst, who has followed the Congress party for decades. “Nevertheless, what he [Rahul Gandhi] managed to do through this yatra is unconventional.”
However, Kidwai was quick to warn that the march might not be enough.
“At the end of the day, it’s the vote that counts – and that’s where the yatra has insurmountable challenges,” he said, noting that the BJP had managed to increase its vote share from 31 percent in 2014 to 38 percent five years later.
“The job of a political party is to win elections. It is the barometer by which the party is evaluated. It remains to be seen how this yatra would turn out for the party’s electoral gains,” he added.
However, neither Congress leaders nor supporters claim that the march is specifically aimed at improving the party’s electoral results. Instead, the Congress claims that the march wants to address the country’s “rampant unemployment and inflation, the politics of hatred and division and the over-centralization of the political system.”
“It is a fight against the hateful attitude prevailing in our country, not a debate about who will win or lose,” Salman Khurshid, a senior Congress leader, told Al Jazeera.
Khurshid admitted that the party needs to step up efforts to spread its message, but expressed confidence that the march had brought about a change in the way the public viewed the Congress and Gandhi. “My political instinct says that people have come to see Rahul as someone who has the ability to grab people’s attention, not just in pockets, but across the country,” he said.
Just another attempt at ‘rebranding’
But for the BJP, the march was just another failed attempt to change Gandhi’s image.
“The purpose of this yatra is not to unite the opposition, as is being claimed,” Gopal Krishna Agarwal, the BJP’s national spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.
“The Congress party is just trying to relaunch Rahul Gandhi and that effort has been going on for some time,” he said.
This month’s survey found that only 13 percent of respondents saw the march as another “rebranding” exercise by Gandhi, while 29 percent firmly believed it was a success in uniting the masses.
However, 37 percent still believe the march will not result in votes for the Congress, according to the CVoter survey, conducted by state-run media conglomerate India Today group.
In Srinagar, 32-year-old Ishita Sedha, a staunch Congress loyalist, was preparing to return to her hometown in Uttarakhand at the culmination of a 150-day journey.
“It was a spiritual journey for me,” Sedha told Al Jazeera, describing the march as “life-changing.”
“Now I can proudly say that I have done something for my nation. This whole march was really a learning ground for me, which I want to continue on my individual level,” she said.