Congress’ Kanyakumari to Kashmir Bharat Jodo Yatra, the party’s largest public outreach in years, has entered its second month. Jairam Ramesh, General Secretary of Congress in charge of communications, spoke to HT about the yatra, the key challenges ahead, organizational changes needed to take electoral advantage, etc. Edited excerpts:
Congress will have a non-Gandhi president after 24 years and that too through elections. But you have suggested that it is secondary and that the yatra is paramount…
The yatra is an exercise in mass mobilization, while Congressional presidential elections are limited to 9,100 delegates. The main story of Congress is not determined by the presidential election, but by this massive mobilization program, which has not been undertaken by the party in the past. It is the longest padyatra [foot march] by any political party. The only longer padyatra in world history is Mao’s 8,000 km Long March, but it had a different context and history.
i remember when [Rahul] Gandhi came for the first meeting of the yatra, there were suggestions to do it in hybrid mode, with trains and cars in some parts. Gandhi was one of the few people in the gathering who insisted on a padyatra to impress. In many ways it is a tribute to his tenacity and endurance that we have embarked on this padyatra.
But it seems that the yatra has turned into a campaign to show Rahul Gandhi as a transformed political leader…
His transformation can be seen as a result of the yatra. But it is certainly not the focus of the yatra. The focus remains on people’s concerns about economic inequality, social polarization and political centralization. The yatra was also intended to reinvent and revive the convention organization. And once it became clear that Gandhi would join the march, it was inevitable that public attention would remain focused on him. And to be fair, in the past 34 days, not only has Congress been able to put down a story, but the public perception of Gandhi has changed dramatically.
A comment is attributed to: [French philosopher] Albert Camus who would quote Nelson Mandela: “Don’t follow me; I can’t lead. Don’t walk ahead of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” I think this applies to Gandhi in the yatra. I know the media emphasized him in a different way before, but it was a shame that this is the real Rahul Gandhi.
The three states covered so far have a strong presence in Congress and it was easy for you to get a large number of participants. Will North India be a challenge?
…we will face challenges in the coming days. Our first challenge will be in Andhra Pradesh, where we have only four percent of the vote. In Karnataka, our organization is extremely strong, even if the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] is in power. Kerala, Gandhi’s electoral state, also has a strong presence in Congress. But Andhra Pradesh will be an important test for the yatra. Then five days in Uttar Pradesh would still be a big challenge. Five more days in Punjab would be a hurdle as we have been diverted lately  election. We should not underestimate these challenges.
We cannot take anything for granted. In fact, I have never taken Karnataka for granted. I’ve said to others, let’s be careful. Let’s moderate our expectations. The response was phenomenal and far exceeded our expectations. Our expectations in Tamil Nadu were fulfilled. We knew Kerala would be a very good show because of the organization of our party and also because Gandhi is an MP [member of Parliament] from Kerala. To me, the index of our success is the speed with which the BJP resorts to dirty tricks.
How did you deal with large crowds in Karnataka, where the party has strong factions?
… there is a lot of curiosity to see Rahul Gandhi. congress president [Sonia] Gandhi also joined the yatra there and that too mobilized our workers. … in Karnataka there are many candidacy candidates because the elections are in six months’ time. So they also helped people organize because they all wanted to impress [Rahul] Gandhi and the party organization.
I think the BJP is surprised by the gigantic response. I am 100% sure that we will get a very good response in Telangana as well.
If the yatra is seen as a success, how do you translate this mobilization into votes?
This is not a yatra to win elections. But it’s a political yatra… for mass consciousness, mass mobilization. Now that has to go hand in hand with political strategy and organizational changes. So we have to walk on two tracks. And that’s a big challenge waiting for the new congressional president, who was to be announced on October 19.
…The yatra itself is not a magic wand. It opens up opportunities and changes perceptions. We determine the story. The BJP is responding to our story. We managed to get into the BJP’s lair and make it feel uncomfortable. But there is no automatism that this yatra will translate into electoral success. It will be a completely different ball game.