Desperate to regain lost ground in the Telugu states, the Congress has huge expectations from Rahul Gandhi's ongoing 'Bharat Jodo Yatra'.
Conscious of the huge odds in Andhra Pradesh where it does not have a single MP or MLA, the party has planned the Yatra in such a manner that it will cover less than 100 km.
However, the coverage will be extensive in Telangana, where the party sees a real chance for itself in the Assembly elections scheduled next year.
The Congress leaders in Telangana are eagerly waiting for the Yatra to enter the state as they believe that it will infuse new enthusiasm among the party cadre and help gear up the organisation for the poll battle ahead.
The Yatra, which has received good response in Kerala and Karnataka, briefly touched Andhra Pradesh on the evening of October 14 before re-entering Karnataka. Rahul Gandhi along with hundreds of supporters walking with him reached Obulapuram in Andhra Pradesh's Anantapur district to a warm welcome by state Congress chief Sailajanath, working president N. Tulasi Reddy, senior leader Raghuveera Reddy and others.
Large number of party workers from Anantapur, Kurnool and Kadapa districts joined the Yatra. After covering 5.4 km in Andhra Pradesh, the Yatra re-entered Karnataka's Ballari district.
Rahul Gandhi is scheduled to reach Aluru in Kurnool district on the night of October 16. There will be a break on October 17 for the AICC presidential elections. The next day the Yatra will cover the Aluru constituency. According to Tulasi Reddy, the Yatra will pass through the Adoni constituency on October 19, Yemmiganur on October 20 and Mantralayam on October 21. The long march will then re-enter Karnataka.
Andhra Pradesh Congress leaders believe that Rahul Gandhi's Yatra will help lift the morale of the party cadres.
"The Yatra will definitely draw huge public support in the state. The party leaders and workers are all waiting eagerly for it," said Tualsi Reddy.
During the Yatra in Andhra Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi is likely to reiterate the promise that if Congress is voted to power at the Centre in 2024, it will accord Special Category Status (SCS) to Andhra Pradesh.
SCS to the residuary state was promised by the Congress-led UPA government at the time of bifurcation of united Andhra Pradesh in 2014 and this commitment was part of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act 2014. However, the BJP-led NDA, which came to power at the Centre in 2014, declined to grant SCS to Andhra Pradesh on the ground that this would lead to similar demands from other states.
The Congress leaders say both the previous Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government and the present YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) regime failed to mount pressure on the Centre to get the SCS to the state.
Political analysts say the Congress still faces a huge challenge to make a comeback in Andhra Pradesh. In the 2014 elections, it was virtually wiped out due to public anger over bifurcation of the state. It drew a blank in both Assembly and Lok Sabha and there was no improvement in 2019.
"People of Andhra Pradesh are still reeling under the after-effects of bifurcation, and it is evident the people there blame the Congress for this situation. The party has lost its leadership and cadres to other political outfits and does not have enough base to put up a decent show if the Bharat Jodo Yatra enters the state," said political analyst Palvai Raghavendra Reddy.
Compared to other states, the Yatra will cover a small part of Andhra Pradesh and the route map has been deliberately planned in this manner.
"While Congress wants to showcase an upwards trend with the Yatra, entering Andhra Pradesh might prove counter-productive for the party. It also suggests that Congress is in no hurry to revive itself immediately in Andhra Pradesh," he said.
Telangana is the state where the Congress wants to focus. Though the party had hoped to politically benefit by carving out the Telangana state, it landed in a situation of neither here nor there. All its hopes were dashed when people voted Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) to power in 2014 and since then the Congress' graph has been on the decline with exodus of its leaders and cadres.
Despite joining hands with the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in 2018, the Congress suffered another defeat at the hands of TRS, which retained power with a huge majority. The Congress finished a poor second in the 119-member Assembly with just 18 seats and within a few months at least a dozen of its MLAs defected to TRS and the party lost even the status of main opposition in the Assembly.
The performance of the Congress in Assembly by-elections has also been disastrous. It failed to retain Huzurnagar which was vacated by Uttam Kumar Reddy after he was elected to the Lok Sabha in 2019.
With the BJP emerging stronger by winning two Assembly by-elections, the Congress is further demoralised. Infighting in the party following change of state leadership last year left the organisation in disarray.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra is entering Telangana at a time when Congress is facing an acid test in the Munugode Assembly by-election, caused by the resignation of its legislator Komatireddy Rajagopal Reddy who switched loyalties to BJP. The November 3 by-election is the last chance for Congress to regain some lost ground before the next year's Assembly polls.
It is in this context that Rahul Gandhi's Yatra has assumed significance for the grand old party in its former stronghold. The party's state unit is looking to draw maximum mileage from the Yatra to shape up well to take on both TRS and BJP.
"While the response in Kerala and Karnataka has been overwhelming, the Telangana state unit has to work hard to ensure people connect with the Yatra, and the message of Rahul Gandhi reaches every village across the state. In a state where regional sentiments are a big factor, it would be interesting to see how crowds respond to the Congress scion's Yatra and meetings. Will the people of Telangana respond sympathetically towards the party which played a big role in the formation of the state is something which only time will tell," said Raghavendra Reddy.
He also pointed out that the Bharat Jodo Yatra will touch only a few locations in Telangana, while completely ignoring Andhra Pradesh.
The route map of Bharat Jodo Yatra in Telangana is yet to be finalised. It is still not clear if the Yatra will cover the state for 15 days as originally planned.
The state leadership impressed on the high command to include Hyderabad in the Yatra. As per the revised schedule, Rahul Gandhi will visit the historic Charminar and the Necklace Road where he will address a meeting after garlanding his grandmother Indira Gandhi's statue on October 31 on the occasion of her death anniversary.
(WIth inputs from IANS)