Rahul Gandhi kicks off cross-India Bharat Nyay Yatra rally

India is preparing up for general elections this year to elect a new prime minister

Rahul Gandhi, India's opposition Congress party leader, begins his cross-country voyage from the north-eastern state of Manipur in Thoubal district on January 14, 2024. AP Photo
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Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has begun a months-long cross-country rally to engage with voters before general elections this year.

Mr Gandhi, 53, kicked off Bharat Nyay Yatra – loosely translated into English as India Justice Rally – on Sunday at Thoubal in Manipur, the remote north-eastern state marred by deadly ethnic violence since May last year.

His journey will cover 6,200 kilometres, 14 states and 85 districts in three months before concluding in Mumbai, Maharashtra state, in March.

It will be Mr Gandhi’s second outreach campaign after a similar rally on foot across India from north to south.

“We are coming to listen to the people, not to express our feelings. We are coming to understand the pain and suffering of the people and communicate with them,” Mr Gandhi said on X, announcing the launch of the rally.

“And from this grass roots dialogue will emerge the vision of building a peaceful, prosperous, and powerful India. A Vision of India – which is based on equality, brotherhood and harmony, in which there is no place for hatred, violence and monopoly,” he said.

The rally is regarded by political analysts as an attempt by Mr Gandhi, the scion of the Indian National Congress, as an attempt to consolidate voters' support as the country prepares for national polls this year to elect a new government and prime minister.

Congress, which ruled the country for more than 60 years after it gained independence from British colonialism in 1947, has suffered a rapid electoral decline after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party took power in 2014.

Congress has given three prime ministers to India – Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, and her son Rajiv – since independence and has faced a host of challenges internally plus rapidly losing its electoral fortunes, with the party’s rule shrunk to two states from 13 in 2014.

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 blamed his “reluctant” leadership as the reason for the election debacles and demanded a robust strategy and an organisational overhaul of the party.

Mr Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra last year, however, hugely benefited the party by energising the party workers, who had lost faith in him, added lustre to his image in the party and connected its leaders with voters.

He had completed the Bharat Jodo Yatra – the longest rally in the country in the last century, from Kanyakumari – the last point of India in southern Tamil Nadu in September 2022 and covered 3,500 kilometres in varied weather and seasonal conditions for 150 days, ending in Srinagar in Kashmir.

Congress enjoyed big wins in the state elections in Karnataka and Telangana by huge margins following the foot march. However, it lost the elections in the Hindi heartland of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, a BJP bastion.

Congress said that the rally is aimed at interacting with “the youth of this country, women of this country, or marginalised people and different-different areas of the people”.

But the selection of the states, particularly the four north-eastern states including Manipur, which has been racked by violence since May, is seen as crucial.

There have been a series of violent episodes over ethnic divisions and more than 200 people have been killed after clashes broke out between the Meitei Hindus and the Christian Kukis over a proposed government policy that would have benefited the majority Hindu community.

The state, bordering Myanmar, is ruled by the BJP, which also runs the federal government but Mr Modi has not visited the state once in the past eight months, drawing criticism from the opposition and local people.

“Governance infrastructure has failed in Manipur, shameful that PM Modi hasn't visited the state … When we were deciding from where the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra will begin, I made it clear that the yatra can only start from Manipur,” Mr Gandhi said at the launch of the rally.

Updated: January 15, 2024, 10:10 AM