A week after Mallikarjun Kharge, the first non-Gandhi president in over 24 years, took charge of the party, Ramesh said some people are calling Gandhi the elephant in the room but the former party chief is actually a “tiger on the road”.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra, Ramesh told PTI, has been a “real booster dose” for the public relationship of the party and its “two Cs”- connectivity for Gandhi and collectivity for the organisation.
“The most tangible impact is on Congress organisation. Congress morale is now at extraordinary high levels. Whether this will translate into long lasting public support is now dependent on the organisation,” the senior leader said.
Ramesh, who is also walking in the Yatra, cited thinker and philosopher Albert Camus to describe Gandhi’s leadership style — “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me.”
“Having known Mr. Gandhi for 18 years, and I know him fairly well, he does not like backseat driving, he does not like asserting his position or authority, he is a very democratic person,” Ramesh said.
The journey undertaken by the party has had a transformative impact in terms of perceptions of Gandhi that had been “distorted very heavily” by the “BJP troll machine”, he said in an interview with PTI during the Yatra here.
For him personally at the age of 68 as well as for the party organisation, the Yatra is the “last throw of the dice” and a “huge gamble”, Ramesh said.
Asked what role Gandhi would play with Kharge taking over the party’s reins, the Congress general secretary in-charge communications said it is up to Kharge and Gandhi to decide that.
“Speaking as a Congressman, an office bearer, member of Parliament, I think Mr Rahul Gandhi’s greatest value will be to play the role of an ideological compass for the party,” he said.
Every party needs an ideological compass or a moral compass, and Rahul Gandhi is ideally suited for that role, Ramesh argued.
“Now whether he plays that role or not is entirely between him and Mr Kharge. I can only speak for myself. I think his comparative advantage lies in playing the role of an ideological or moral compass, something like the role Mr PN Haksar (former principal secretary to PM) played vis-a-vis Mrs Indira Gandhi from 1967-73,” he said.
“Of course Mr Haksar was a backroom man whereas Mr Gandhi is very much a front room person,” he added.
Discussing the Yatra, which started at Kanyakumari on September 7, Ramesh said what it has done very visibly is energise the Congress organisation, be in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh or Telangana.
“… The Bharat Jodo Yatra, I would not say has opened a window of opportunity, it has opened a door of opportunity.”
The narrative around the Congress and Gandhi has been transformed, it is no longer a negative vilification narrative, the senior Congress leader said.
It is a narrative that acknowledges that this is quite a unique attempt at mass contact, Ramesh said.
Asked if Gandhi has been a revelation during the Yatra, Ramesh said, “I would not say revelation, it is a revelation for the people who vilified him, who ran him down. It is the real person who is covering 22 km every day. So it is not a new Rahul, it is the real Rahul that has come out.”
There was a campaign ever since 2009 — when the Congress came back with a heightened majority — to damage, vilify, malign and defame him, and also the Congress party, he said.
“The election defeat in 2014 and 2019, I don’t think the blame is his (Gandhi). The defeat certainly affected his public persona and the fact that he lost from Amethi as well.
“What this Yatra has done is that it has given an opportunity for Rahul Gandhi to have an unmediated connection with the people without the media. He does not have a spin machine around him, he is walking 22-23 km daily meeting thousands of people and interacting with a variety of organisations.”
There is no doubt that post-Bharat Jodo Yatra Rahul Gandhi would be seen dramatically differently both within the organisation and outside as well, Ramesh said.
“What I find interesting is that by and large nine of the 10 critics who vilified Gandhi have changed their view or have kept quiet.”
He dismissed suggestions that the Congress was only focussed on the Yatra and not on the upcoming assembly polls, saying the party organisation was in place and while Ashok Gehlot was leading the charge in Gujarat, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra was doing so in Himachal Pradesh.
If Rahul Gandhi is called upon to campaign, he would take a couple of days off and go for the campaign, he added.
Ramesh also rejected claims that the Congress is strong in the South and weak in the North.
The Congress after having gone through the Covid pandemic is now going through ‘Yatra-itis’, he said, citing the main Yatra and sub-Yatras being held in various states.
Asked about the impact the Yatra would have in the long run, Ramesh said it depends on the organisation and the type of changes AICC chief Kharge and his team are able to put in place.
“It is not a magic wand, as I said, It is a booster dose. We keep needing booster doses from time to time. This I think is the first real meaningful booster dose after a long time,” he said.
On whether the party was on the path to revival on the road to 2024 general elections, Ramesh said he would be very circumspect as he believed in the Narayana Murthy model of management which is under promise and over achieve.
“I am not going to take a gigantic leap and say the Bharat Jodo Yatra is a metamorphosis for 2024, it is a long haul, we have very many deep challenges that we have to confront, it is an opportunity that has been opened,” he said.
According to Ramesh, the Yatra is not about winning elections. It is a political Yatra by a political party with objectives that transcend electoral politics
“We are not an NGO. We are not a band of sanyasis. We have electoral ambitions but to view the Bharat Jodo Yatra only through the prism of state elections or national elections, I think is doing injustice to the larger objectives of the Yatra,” Ramesh stressed.