On a piercingly cold Punjab morning, as a bitter frost crusted the ground, they gathered. Some were bundled up in blankets, others clutched feeble cups of chai for warmth. But not Rahul Gandhi. Wearing only a white T-shirt and cargo trousers, Gandhi began to pace forward at speed, leaving fellow marchers in his wake. “I’ve heard he doesn’t feel the cold,” said Raju, an admiring local onlooker, as he sprinted off to take a photo.
This was the 123rd day that Gandhi, the former leader of India’s once formidable Congress party, had been walking across India, beginning at its southernmost tip of Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu and travelling 2,200 miles (3,500km) up to the Himalayas. On Monday, he will finish in Srinagar, in the embattled state of Kashmir, after 150 days of walking.
Among those accompanying Gandhi was Karuna Prasad Mishra, a 91-year-old farmer who had once marched with India’s most famous freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi. With a walking stick in his gnarled hand, Mishra proudly boasted of the seven-mile-per-hour speed that he had maintained for over four months of walking 15 miles a day.
“I have witnessed my country go though many periods, but nothing like this,” said Mishra, who insisted his feet had not ached once. “Prime Minister Modi is nothing but a heartless butcher. I am walking with Rahul Gandhi to reinforce the spirit of brotherhood, harmony and secularism in India.”
When Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo [Unite India] yatra – a deeply evocative Sanskrit word meaning pilgrimage – began in September, it was largely greeted with both scepticism and disinterest, deemed by many as the final desperate gasp of a party in its death throes.
Congress was the party that helped bring India to independence and had dominated the political landscape since 1947. But since 2014, Gandhi, son of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the grandson of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, had led the Congress to two crushing electoral defeats that saw it shunned into irrelevance by the soaring popularity of Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata party’s (BJP) Hindu nationalist politics.
Gandhi was widely mocked by the BJP and the media as pappu (a small boy) and Rahul Baba, meaning upper class. He’s been lampooned for being elitist, inexperienced and out of touch with ordinary Indians. He resigned as the president of Congress in 2019, but remained the face and the de facto leader of the party. The mounting electoral losses, entrenched disorganisation and disillusionment within the party ranks were laid at his feet.
But as he began walking, first into Kerala and then Karnataka, covering about 15 miles a day, something, noticeably, began to shift. Gandhi’s messages of the yatra – that he was marching for social harmony, Hindu-Muslim unity and condemning the rise of divisive and majoritarian politics under Modi – began to draw in huge crowds.
In Punjab, where Congress suffered a humiliating defeat in the state elections 10 months ago, people arrived in their droves as the yatra marched through the villages and passed by rolling fields of wheat, mustard and sugarcane. Baldev Singh Balli, 68, an English professor from Hoshiarpur was among those who walked alongside Gandhi.
“We talked and he sought my views,” he said. “We discussed how India can be liberated from this hate politics and the need for economic liberation of the people. Rahul Gandhi is on a great journey to restore integrity to society.”
The further Gandhi walked, the more he began to be portrayed as a mature, credible statesman – gaining an almost reverential guru status to some. His message of love and solidarity, at a time when the rise of religious nationalist politics has created ruptures across the country, struck a chord, particularly on social media. Meanwhile Gandhi’s beard, growing bigger, bushier and more like that of a sadhu or holy man as the days went on, became a national talking point, as did the short-sleeved white T-shirt he chose to wear, even as the winter chill set in.
Gandhi himself acknowledged his political metamorphosis. “Rahul Gandhi is in your mind. I have killed him. He is not there,” he recently told reporters.
Within Congress, the yatra not only revitalised the leadership, but the entire rank-and-file of the party. “Frankly, there was a serious crisis within the organisation,” said Jairam Ramesh, the general secretary of Congress who at 67 has been marching every day.
“There was disenchantment, there was disillusionment, there was depression. Over the last 30 to 40 years, we have ceded the battlefield of ideas and ideologies to the BJP and vanished from the political discourse. People no longer knew what Congress is about: is it only there for power?
“Now, within the party, people have a huge sense of collective purpose,” he added. “And for the first time in 10 years, Congress is setting the narrative in India.”
The yatra has a deep historical significance in India in a religious and political context, symbolising endurance and sacrifice. Most famous was Mahatma Gandhi’s yatra in 1930, known as the salt march, when he walked more than 200 miles in protest at laws imposed by the British.
Following the traditions of the past, those marching in the Bharat Jodo yatra subscribe to a simple life. All the core participants, Gandhi included, sleep in shipping containers that follow the march on trucks. Those under 40 sleep 12 to a container and senior citizens, eight. After the day’s walking they are usually asleep by 9pm and rise again at 4am.
Yet for all the optimism among Congress workers that the yatra will transform their fortunes – particularly ahead of the crucial 2024 general election – others outside the party are more sceptical.
Political analyst Sudha Pai said while the yatra was the first time that Congress had confronted the Hindu nationalist politics of the BJP head on, it would be hard to halt the decline of the party that began in the 1980s.
Despite Gandhi’s newfound popularity, it will likely not be him facing Modi in the 2024 elections as he is no longer the party head. However, the Gandhi dynasty is still seen to control the party, with the newly elected Congress president, Mapanna Mallikarjun Kharge, perceived by many as a stooge of the family.
“There is no clarity as to who is actually the leader,” said Pai. “In key states, the party’s organisation is still in shambles and there’s still no unity. They all speak out without even consulting each other or having any common way of dealing with things.”
In order to present a formidable opposition to the BJP, which is a popular, powerful and highly disciplined machine, Congress needed to work harder to form coalitions with other opposition parties that are regionally strong, Pai said.
“Unless they come to some sort of an arrangement with the other opposition parties, they will not be able to defeat the BJP,” she said. “And if they don’t defeat the BJP, the purpose of the yatra cannot be fulfilled.”
As the march paused for a vast buffet lunch in Punjab, Gandhi held a press conference for the local media, answering questions about what he would do once they completed their 2,200-mile journey.
“Walking across this country has been an extremely humbling experience,” he said. “For me, the yatra is a way of thinking, a way of acting. So personally, for me, it will continue.”