Will Rahul Gandhi's 150-day march across India pay off at the ballot box?

Closest challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi has covered more than 3,000 kilometers so far, meeting voters before the 2024 election

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An army of supporters trailed Rahul Gandhi, the Indian parliamentarian and the scion of the country's main opposition Indian National Congress party on Tuesday as he resumed his months-long march across India.

Wearing his signature white short-sleeve T-shirt as temperatures hovered around 17°C in the capital city, Mr Gandhi, 52, walked through Ghaziabad, an industrial city in the political bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh.

A sea of followers carrying the Indian national flag walked along with the leader who took a nine-day break last month from his ambitious 150-day march.

Three rows of security forces separated Mr Gandhi from the crowds in the sensitive areas bordering Delhi and Ghaziabad that were rocked by communal riots in 2020.

He will be walking across the state for four days before reaching northern Punjab.

Mr Gandhi began the unprecedented five-month march in India’s southernmost tip Kanyakumari in September with an aim to cover 12 states and two federally-ruled territories. The march will culminate in the restive Kashmir region.

He said the objective of the march is to unite the world’s largest democracy and get rid it of the “politics of fear, bigotry and prejudice”.

Over the last 100 days, he has walked more than 3,000 kilometres — at least 30 kilometres a day without significant breaks — traversing through nine states and meeting enthusiastic followers.

He has also garnered massive support from celebrities. Bollywood superstars such as Kamal Haasan, artists, authors and former bureaucrats such as a former Reserve Bank of India chief and the former secretary of India’s Research and Analysis Wing Amarjit Singh Dulat joined in along the way.

This overwhelming support for the march is no mean feat for the leader, who was previously dismissed by critics as an inept politician, aloof and distanced from ground realities, and a product of nepotism.

Mr Gandhi comes from India's so-called first political family that has produced three prime ministers since independence from the British in 1947.

But both he and his party have experienced a rapid decline in support after Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party stormed to power in 2014.

Congress leaders and workers have blamed Mr Gandhi’s “reluctant” leadership for the election defeats and have demanded robust strategy and an organisational overhaul of the party, the reins of which remain with his mother Sonia Gandhi.

Political experts say that the sustainability of the march and its popularity with voters will definitely help bolster Mr Gandhi’s political image.

“It is a successful march because there was a lot of speculation that he would not be able to walk for so long, various questions were raised on its survival but it has survived so far,” Sanjay Kumar, a Delhi-based political analyst, told The National.

“He has been able to change his image among the common people. Now he is no more seen as a reluctant politician who goes on vacations but someone who can be on the streets and connect with the common citizens and their problems.”

The party might also be seeing the foot march as a massive mass contact with the people ahead of the 2024 national elections.

Mr Gandhi’s walk through Uttar Pradesh is even more significant as the state with a population of 220 million people, is country’s most crucial political state as it sends 80 — the maximum number of representatives to the upper house of the Parliament and defines the narrative of Indian politics.

However, political analysts such as Mr Kumar are doubtful that the support and popularity for Mr Gandhi will translate into ballots to help revive the party.

He believes that the party has bigger issues than just the absence of a strong leader.

Several top leaders have quit the party in recent years including the recent exit of senior politician Ghulam Nabi Azad who called Mr Gandhi “childish and immature”.

Mr Kumar also said that many in India, where Hindus make 86 per cent of the population, see Congress as a party that seeks to appease minorities.

“Having a weak leader is one of the problems but not the only problem for the party. He has established his legitimacy but many leaders have left the party and there is a lot of anxiety. It needs to first bring the house in order,” Mr Kumar said.

“Then the politics of the country has changed in last ten years. A large population share the Hindu sentiment, even if not aggressive, and see the BJP as a party that is doing work for Hindus but Congress is seen as pro-minority. The problem is how to change this image?”

Updated: January 03, 2023, 2:29 PM