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‘Long march’ helps India’s Rahul Gandhi shed playboy image

Rahul Gandhi has for years struggled to challenge the electoral juggernaut of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds a near-monopoly on power through nationalist appeals to the country's Hindu majority.

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Five months spent traversing his country on foot helped the scion of India’s most famous dynasty shed his playboy image — but the road to reviving his dismal political fortunes will be a tougher journey.

Rahul Gandhi has for years struggled to challenge the electoral juggernaut of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) holds a near-monopoly on power through nationalist appeals to the country’s Hindu majority.

Read more: BJP’s bigotry damaged India’s global standing, says Rahul Gandhi

Modi has revelled in casting his chief opponent, dubbed an “empty suit” in leaked US embassy cables from 2005, as an out-of-touch princeling more interested in luxury and self-indulgence than fighting to helm the world’s biggest democracy.

His Congress party, a once-mighty force with a proud role in ending British colonial rule 75 years ago, is now a shadow of its former self, plagued by infighting and defections.

But a decision to invoke one of India’s best-known protest traditions, flanked by ordinary people, has given him an air of authority that had so far eluded him in public life.

“Rightly or wrongly, the BJP’s campaign of him being an incompetent person was the dominant perception — he has managed to change that,” independent political analyst Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Junior told AFP.

Since his long trek began on India’s southernmost tip last September, Gandhi has struck a chord with fiery speeches and affectionate interactions with the thousands of bystanders that have lined streets to watch his procession.

The campaign harkens back to the famous 1930 trek by Rahul’s unrelated namesake Mahatma Gandhi, whose march to protest a salt tax imposed by British rulers was a seminal moment in India’s independence struggle.

It has bypassed the country’s traditional media in an effort to reach the public directly, with an in-house social media apparatus and interviews with online influencers.

Read more: Rahul Gandhi says India made “huge strategic mistake” in Kashmir

Footage of Gandhi on the road shows him with a newly commanding posture, sporting an unkempt salt-and-pepper beard grown during the march and trailed by smiling children.

His 3,500-kilometre (2,175-mile) journey — not all by foot — concludes on Monday in the frosty Himalayan foothills of Kashmir, after months spent finessing both his common touch and a voter pitch capitalising on widespread economic insecurity.

“The job of the nation is to make sure that you feel protected,” he said this month, while sharing kebabs and playfully joking about his sweet tooth in a YouTube interview with a popular food blogger.

Read more: Rahul Gandhi shames BJP, acknowledges Pakistan’s fight against COVID-19

– ‘Unite India’ –

The “Bharat Jodo Yatra” (“Unite India March”) has fashioned Gandhi into a more credible heir to the legacy of his father, grandmother and great-grandfather, each one a former prime minister, beginning with independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru.

But Gandhi has already steered Congress to two landslide election defeats against the seemingly unconquerable BJP, whose victory in next year’s national polls is almost universally considered a foregone conclusion by experts.

“He has managed to redefine his public image,” Rao said. “Whether it will translate into votes, I am not very sure.”

Congress was dominant during the first half-century after Indian independence but now governs in just three of India’s 28 states.

The party weathered a messy and public internal brawl last year over who would take office as its president after the resignation of Sonia Gandhi — Rahul’s mother, widowed when her husband Rajiv was assassinated in a suicide attack in 1991.

Several leaders of other opposition parties historically aligned with Congress spurned Rahul’s entreaties to join his countrywide trek, an uncharitable estimation of his prospects next year.

His exhortations of religious tolerance and India’s secular traditions have in the past failed to dent the BJP’s muscular advocacy for the Hindu majority at a time of rising intolerance against Muslims.

Read more: Many Indians don’t consider Dalits, Muslims and Tribals to be human, Rahul Gandhi

– ‘He had no choice’ –

But his decision to undertake the march also reflects his biggest hurdle: the enduring power of Prime Minister Modi, whose skill in cultivating a populist public image well outclasses his own.

“Rahul Gandhi himself has said that he had no choice but to go for the (march) in order to connect with people and report it through social media,” Zoya Hasan, an academic and political scientist based in New Delhi, told AFP.

Modi is the beneficiary of a media environment largely in thrall to the BJP’s agenda, with Indian press freedoms declining significantly since he took office in 2014, according to international watchdogs.

While the prime minister’s daily movements are reported on frantically by cable news broadcasters, Gandhi’s exploits have largely failed to feature unless they cast him in a negative light.

“Anything that undermines the opposition is prime news,” Hasan added.

“Anything that is positive which actually brings people together, as the Bharat Jodo Yatra is seeking to do, is not.”