A transnational march led by Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has reached the capital New Delhi after crossing eight states in hopes of regaining some of the popularity it lost to the ruling Hindu nationalist party.
Tens of thousands of people have joined Gandhi’s “Unite India March” against “hatred and division” aimed at turning the tide of the Congress party after it was defeated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in two consecutive national elections.
“Hindu-Muslim hatred is being spread around the clock to distract your attention from real issues,” Gandhi said in his speech at the Mughal-era Red Fort in the Indian capital.
“You will spread hate. We will spread love,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP.
People take part in the Unite India march in New Delhi [Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]
Hindu nationalism has risen under Modi and his party, who have come under criticism for increasing hate speech and violence against Muslims in recent years. Opponents say Modi’s silence emboldens right-wing groups and threatens national unity, but his party has denied it.
“There are concerns about the plight of minorities, the shrinking space for dissent, and the government’s handling of the pandemic and the economy,” said Al Jazeera’s Pavni Mittal, reporting from New Delhi.
“Analysts say Congress’ inability to be an effective opposition and hold the government to account has contributed to the BJP’s unprecedented success,” she added.
The Nehru-Gandhi family has controlled the Congress Party for decades but has also overseen its recent demise. The party currently governs only three of India’s 28 states.
Rahul Gandhi resigned as Congress President after the last general election. The next national surveys are scheduled for 2024.
In October, plagued by a leadership crisis and a string of electoral defeats, Congress elected Mallikarjun Kharge, its first non-Gandhi president in 24 years, to shake off an image of being run by a single family.
Kharge wrote on Twitter on Saturday that the march was “against the policies of inflation, unemployment, inequality and hatred”.
“[This] national mass movement has rallied the hopes of crores [millions] of people by attaining the throne of power,” he posted.
The march will pause for nine days in New Delhi before beginning its final leg on January 3 towards Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir in the north.
“Revival” of the Congress
The 3,570km Unite India march began in September in the coastal town of Kanyakumari on the southern tip of India.
Congressional leader Jairam Ramesh told reporters Saturday the march — which is being streamed live on a website — has covered nearly 3,200 km (1,988 miles) across nine states so far.
Gandhi’s mother and former Congress President Sonia Gandhi, his sister and party leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and her husband Robert Vadra joined the march in the capital on Saturday.
Gandhi shared a picture of himself hugging his mother during the rally and tweeted: “The love I received from her is what I share with the country.”
Actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan also joined the march on Saturday.
We go for an India where no one lives in fear and everyone finds a brighter future. pic.twitter.com/ooLG8mA55C
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) December 24, 2022
The march, which passes through hundreds of villages and towns, has drawn farmers concerned about rising debts, students complaining about rising unemployment, members of civil society and rights activists who say India’s democratic health is in decline .
In several impassioned speeches during the march, Gandhi often aimed for Modi and his government to do very little to address India’s growing economic inequality, increasing religious polarization and the threat posed by China.
The armies of India and China have been locked in a bitter standoff in the mountainous region of Ladakh since 2020. Despite more than a dozen rounds of talks at the military, political and diplomatic levels, the standoff has dragged on.
Meanwhile, Modi’s party has dismissed Gandhi’s march and speeches as a political gimmick in a bid to regain his “lost credibility”.
“The character of the Congress was to break India,” the party said in a tweet on Saturday.
Javed M Ansari, a journalist and political commentator, said the march was successful in reviving the Congress party.
“There’s some momentum now — a key purpose for congressional staff,” Ansari told Al Jazeera.
The march’s popularity “certainly changed Gandhi’s image for the better,” he said, adding that the challenge for his party now is to turn enthusiasm in the streets into votes.