Sonia’s challenge: Bharat jodo or Congress jodo?

Although the much-talked-about ‘Bharat jodo yatra’ is floated to galvanize Congress across the country, it seems to be a desperate effort to re-position Rahul Gandhi. By joining the son in Karnataka, mother Sonia has made it further clear.

Sonia Gandhi
Sonia Gandhi

The last time there was a ripple effect by the Nehru-Gandhis in the southern state of Karnataka was nearly a quarter century ago, in the summer of 1999 when the Congress party’s wannabe president Sonia Gandhi, attempting to replicate Indira Gandhi’s comeback into national politics from Chikmagalur in 1978, and contested the Ballari Lok Sabha seat.
Despite her stilted Hindi, Sonia trounced the BJP’s female stalwart Sushma Swaraj; both women, a novelty to the Banjara tribals and the unlettered Valmiki community who gathered in their hundreds to gawk at the unlikeliest of electoral spectacles.
On Thursday, however, as the Congress’ Bharat Jodo Yatra swept into BJP ruled Karnataka and the Vokkaliga bastion of Mandya where a Congress-Janata Dal-S battle is foretold, six days after a remarkable run in Marxist -run Kerala, an ageing but far more on message Sonia, led from the front.
There were no speeches, no public rallies. And she only walked for a little over 15 minutes before getting back into a vehicle, holding out the faint promise that she may be back when the Yatra enters Ballari later this week. Even, the scheduled informal chat with a clutch of party leaders at the Yatra before she headed back to Delhi was reported to have been scrapped. 
Urged by son Rahul Gandhi, who is leading the 150-day march, to get back in the car as she was finding it difficult to walk even in the shoes her son helped her change into, thereby reinforcing concerns over her poor health, Sonia’s mere presence had however sent a ripple through the cadres on Thursday. She had clearly fired up the local Congress workers as she walked alongside former Congress chief minister Siddaramaiah and his rival D.K. Shivakumar, with whispers of a backroom power sharing deal reported to have been reached by Sonia with the two men.
Her unstated but primary focus on the three day visit to the state has been to ensure that the first ever internal polls scheduled for later this month, where Gandhi family loyalist and Karnataka stalwart Mallikarjun Kharge is pitted against the smooth talking Shashi Tharoor, does go through without a hitch; and see to it that Kharge, the shoo-in, will be able to ready the party to face the BJP in a slew of assembly polls, including Karnataka, and the parliamentary polls in 2024, with the entire old guard, deployed at full strength.
Insiders who took part in the walk said the buzz among the cadres was primarily on whether the Congress without a single Gandhi–officially-at the helm would hold together at all, and the efficacy of keeping younger leaders like Tharoor and Sachin Pilot on the sidelines.
What was lost on no-one, was that the unspoken agenda was to whip up support for Rahul, and undo the damage to his carefully crafted image of someone who understood the common man’s problems and the importance of conserving its minorities and SC-ST vote-bank, all for a possible leadership role in 2024, if the Yatra did manage to catch the imagination of the people.   
Rahul seemed to be losing ground after he was attacked on social media for sporting designer T-shirts that OpIndia claims, cost nothing less than Rs 45,000, for flaunting designer walking shoes, and even for borrowing the idea of using air-conditioned containers for the march from Pakistani leader and ‘enemy’ Imran Khan, while quietly staying overnight at a five star resort. Sonia’s attempt therefore was to bring the focus back to the Yatra’s main goal -not just energise the dwindling cadres and widen the Congress’ reach among young people and women, but highlight the Narendra Modi government’s perceived mishandling of the economy, and the alleged ‘40% corruption charge against CM Bommai’ which the Congress and other opposition parties claim they are unable to raise, even in parliament.
That she may be fast losing her hold was demonstrated by the embarrassing public refusal of a trusted aide like Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot to follow her diktat and give up his chief ministership and run the party. 
Sonia knows, that just as she stepped away from the prime ministership when she was targeted for being a foreigner, she must take the Gandhi family out of the BJP’s firing line. Handing over the reins of the party to a trusted group of Congressmen over the course of the next few months and putting in place a less than acrimonious relationship between the old guard and the new, without challenging the ‘above the fray ‘place of the Gandhis in the party, is an imperative.  
Is it less ‘Bharat jodo’ and more Congress jodo?  Either way, she should take some comfort from the pre-poll surveys that have handed Gujarat to the BJP on a platter, but have not done the same for Karnataka. That Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai-who some say, could be replaced by Lingayat stalwart B.S. Yeddyurappa’s son Vijayendra unless corruption charges gather pace-is preparing to launch his own padayatra tells its own story.
Neena Gopal is a veteran journalist who worked in the Middle East as Foreign Editor for Gulf News. She covered first Gulf War in 1990, war-torn Iraq and its neighbours through the Second Gulf War. She has reported from the LTTE held areas in Sri Lanka as well as from within Afghanistan. Until recently the Resident Editor of Deccan Chronicle, Bengaluru, she is also the author of ‘The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi’.