On the 76th day of his long march north across India, Rahul Gandhi, scion of a powerful political dynasty, entered a textile village in the middle of this vast country, his face and hair covered in dust. . .
Gone are the fancy trappings that his adversaries in India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party had used to caricature him as authoritative and aloof. Now, Mr. Gandhi was talking about the blistered feet and the struggle of the common man. He shook hands with children, hugged older men and women who stroked his hair and kissed his forehead, in what he hoped was a 2,000-mile journey out of the political wilderness for his once-dominant Congress party.
“The government closed all the democratic institutions to us: the parliament, the media, the elections,” Gandhi, 52, told supporters late last month in Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh state. “There was no other way than to go out on the streets to listen and connect with people.”
With less than 16 months to go before a national election, Gandhi’s march could determine whether India’s fractured political opposition can do anything to stop the era-defining ambitions of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
India’s future as a multi-party democracy hangs in the balance. Modi, one of the most powerful leaders in Indian history, has remade his secular political base to privilege the Hindu majority and sideline Muslims and other minorities.
His imprint is so deep and his successes so comprehensive that his lieutenants say the BJP will retain control of the country for decades to come.
As the party has tightened its grip on the entire country and its institutions, opposition politicians complain that they have been pushed out of the platforms where they can reach the masses in the cycle of democratic politics.
Parliament, once a thriving debating chamber, is now largely confined to ministerial speeches, with the ruling party avoiding debates on key political issues. The BJP, through a combination of pressure and the threat to withhold government advertising money, has largely intimidated the mainstream media.
After Gandhi reached Burhanpur, where he was greeted by huge crowds, some watching him from rooftops and some from the thin branches of trees, he was barely mentioned on late-night TV shows.
That Mr. Gandhi has found himself having to walk across India, struggling to steal a glimmer of attention and project a new profile, is the culmination of a once unimaginable turn of fortunes for his family and party. .
The Indian National Congress party has run the country for two-thirds of its 75 years of independence, and the Gandhi-Nehru family has produced three prime ministers who have ruled for a total of nearly four decades.
But in Gandhi’s decade as the party’s official chairman or de facto leader, it has faced repeated defeats in national and state elections, and currently holds just 53 of the 543 seats in parliament. The BJP has 303 seats.
With the party increasingly defined not by ideas but by loyalty to the family that has been central to its history, the dilemma surrounding its decline is often simplified as: you can’t do it with or without the Gandhi.
As the Congress party has withered, its messy scandals and infighting have played out more and more in public. The mess created by the family’s inability to reconcile warring factions has resulted in stalemate at the local level, party officials say, and high-ranking defections.
“This march, of course, is a last-ditch attempt on his part to revive his party’s fortunes and bolster his national image,” said Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor at Indiana University. “But beyond the fanfare, it has failed to explain a clear, alternative vision of the country.”
Gandhi said he has begun his journey, which will take about 150 days as he and his entourage of 120 cover some 13 miles a day, sleeping in containers carried on heavy trucks, to help unite a country he says is deeply polarized by Mr. Modi’s Hindu majority politics.
Passing through villages and small towns in seven states since September, their march has drawn a wide range of supporters: farmers grappling with an inescapable cycle of debt; indigenous people fighting to protect rainforests from powerful developers; students eager for upward mobility in an economy that does not provide enough jobs.
By attacking the ruling party, Gandhi has voiced the concerns of a large section of the population who suffer from the deeply unequal reality of an economy hampered by high levels of youth unemployment and rising inflation.
“When he patiently listened to us and spoke of the pain of the common man, my opinion of him changed,” said Amar Thakur, who supported the BJP in the last election and met Gandhi during a meeting in Burhanpur to hear local grievances. . “Enough of the hate, I will vote for your party.”
Mr Gandhi’s simple message of unity, Congress leaders said, amounts to the party’s first major ideological attack on the Hindu idea that India is cemented by the BJP.
“It’s our last roll of the dice,” said Jairam Ramesh, a former federal minister who has been walking with Gandhi. “We are putting everything we have into it. If we don’t make a difference through it, then there is a problem for us as a party and as an ideology.”
Modi’s imprint on Indian politics is so indelible that Gandhi, who declined to be interviewed for this article, seemed to emulate him during his tour of the country, even as he presented himself as an alternative.
Gandhi’s forehead has often been adorned with a red dot, or tilak, a Hindu mark of piety. He has shed his former clean-shaven appearance for a beard that is growing by the day. He often takes part in temple visits and religious ceremonies when he stops in towns and cities.
Such long marches are part of a well-established political tradition in India dating back to the country’s fight for independence. In the 1990s, when the roles were reversed, the BJP undertook a similar march, rallying around the construction of a Hindu temple where a Mughal-era mosque had stood. That march helped ignite the BJP’s ideological foundation and laid the groundwork for its subsequent rise.
It is far from clear whether Gandhi can lead his party off the path of irrelevance in national politics. But he seems to be betting on a two-pronged strategy: putting himself at the center of the effort to build narrative and direction while he creates some distance by handing over the party presidency to someone outside the family.
After long periods of resentment within the ranks of Congress over the Gandhi family’s refusal to share leadership, the party in October elected an 80-year-old loyalist as its first non-Gandhi president in 24 years.
To some critics, the election of the new leader, as well as the march’s singular focus on Gandhi, made it clear that the family was not letting go in any meaningful way that could fix the party’s dysfunction and erosion of support.
Whether or not the Congress party’s fortunes turn, it is clear that Gandhi’s message has resonated with many who view India’s leadership under Modi with dismay.
On a recent morning on the border between the states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, hundreds of youths began chasing Gandhi, who was walking inside a rope held up by dozens of square-shaped policemen.
Syed Sharaft Ali, a Muslim day laborer, said he left his home early in the morning and walked for three hours to express his support for Gandhi’s march and tell him how religious polarization was dividing friends and destroying families.
As Gandhi approached, the crowd pushed Ali away, his body rolling among the officers as they tried to corral supporters.
Mr. Gandhi gestured to Mr. Ali to enter the ring. They talked for a minute.
“At least he hugged me,” Ali said. “Other leaders don’t even want to look at us.”
Mr. Ali then walked back to his village with wet eyes; Mr. Gandhi continued through the dust.
Mujib Masal contributed reporting from New Delhi.