India’s embattled opposition politician Rahul Gandhi on Wednesday began a months-long “Unite India March” as he seeks to resuscitate his party from a series of electoral defeats by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mr Gandhi, once portrayed as Mr Modi’s main challenger for the country’s top post, kicked off the 150-day “foot march” from Kanyakumari — India’s southernmost tip — as he aims to rid the world’s largest democracy of the “politics of fear, bigotry and prejudice”.
The Congress Party, which ruled the country for more than 60 years after India gained independence in 1947, has experienced a rapid electoral decline after Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party took power in 2014.
But opposition parties including Mr Gandhi’s Congress accuse Mr Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of dividing the country along religious lines and harming its economy as inflation and unemployment rise.
Mr Gandhi equated the ruling government with the former British colonisers and accused Mr Modi’s party of “dividing Indians, making them fight and stealing from them”.
“It is very important that we bring the people of the country together,” he said.
“We want to listen to the wisdom of the people of India unlike the BJP-RSS who crush the voices of all the Indians.”
Mr Gandhi was referring to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological fountainhead of the ruling party.
The march will take the embattled leader about 3,500 kilometres from India’s southernmost tip to northern Indian-administered Kashmir as he works to connect with the country's population before the 2024 elections.
The 52-year-old leader will travel in an air-conditioned container complete with a bed and toilet throughout the march, touted as a “transformational and decisive moment” for the party.
He will be joined by several party leaders and party workers in the fresh effort to connect with the masses to highlight economic disparities, social polarisation and the destruction of the federal structure.
Hours before the launch of the march, Mr Gandhi paid homage to his father at the Sriperumbudur memorial near Chennai, where former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991.
“I lost my father to the politics of hate and division. I will not lose my beloved country to it, too. Love will conquer hate. Hope will defeat fear. Together, we will overcome,” Mr Gandhi said.
The party, which has given three prime ministers to India — Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv — since independence from Britain in 1947, is not only facing Mr Modi’s electoral juggernaut but also upheavals within the party.
In less than a decade, the party‘s rule was reduced from 13 states in 2014 to two states after the BJP defeated the Congress-led alliance in the national elections.
Mr Gandhi stepped down as the Congress president after the party’s crushing defeat in the 2019 national elections amid criticism that he lacked the political acumen to defeat Mr Modi.
Congress leaders and workers have often blamed Mr Gandhi’s “reluctant” leadership as the reason for the election debacles and have demanded an organisational overhaul of the party, the reins of which remain with his mother, Sonia Gandhi.
Several top leaders have quit the party in recent years including senior politician Ghulam Nabi Azad, who called Mr Gandhi “childish and immature”.
Many parties and political commentators have, however, supported the march, with western Maharashtra’s ruling Shiv Sena calling the “outreach programme” a “need for national unity”.