The Punjab leg of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra has been a mixed bag. The message that is largely being felt by the people and the political observers is that it has served certain key purposes in the emerging political scenario ahead of the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls. But at the same time there is a lot that this party needs to do beyond optics to translate things into an electoral advantage.

The perception is that Rahul Gandhi, and the Congress have succeeded in an image makeover. As Vijay Bombeli who has been documenting Punjab’s political history pointed out, “people have understood that he is not a ‘Pappu’ as he was made to be all this while over the last eight years. Those who went to see him, found him to be a clear hearted person.

“Secondly, riding on the awareness that the farmers’ movement against the three controversial agrarian laws that the centre was compelled to repeal had achieved, Rahul has managed to drive home real issues of poverty, disparity and unemployment.”

Party workers at the grass roots level who became a part of the Yatra are feeling rejuvenated. “Rahul has been taking feedback right from the workers at the block level, something that was not seen to be done by any other leader of his stature in the party. He has been asking the worker with whom he has been interacting about their backgrounds and the problems they have been facing in doing the party work.

“He is keen to involve the youth, girls, and members from the scheduled castes, backward castes and those from other marginalised sections in taking the party forward. At the same time he has been giving a clear signal to the leaders at the middle and upper rung that they will have to work and take to the streets.

“The message is that the leaders are because of the party and not the other way round. He has also been saying that there will not be any compromise on the core ideology of the party,” a grass roots worker of the party told The Citizen.

During the Punjab leg of the Yatra, Rahul has given some strong political indications in context of the coming electoral battles. Addressing the issue of farmers in a media interaction in Hoshiarpur on Tuesday, he said, “The farmers are facing non stop attacks from multiple angles. The protection they need is not there.” He said the UPA government did try to give some protection through a loan waiver and certain other steps.

“Even we should have done more,” he said while asserting that whenever the Congress forms the government in the state or at the centre the farmers would be its central focus along with the small and medium industry.

Talking from the perspective of the Congress party, many feel that the Yatra lagged on multiple counts in Punjab. “The Yatra did not cover the all important Malwa region. It should have touched the stronghold of the traditional rivals the Shiromani Akali Dal by passing through places like Muktsar and Bathinda that are the bastions of five times Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son and present party president Sukhbir Singh Badal.

“The party did not even touch Sangrur district that is the home turf of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann or for that matter the constituency of Gidderbaha which is represented by its state unit chief Amrinder Singh ‘Raja Warring’. The Yatra is also barely touching the all important area of Majha though Rahul did go to the Golden Temple at Amritsar,” pointed out a political observer.

Observers are also pointing at the absence of some of the senior leaders or symbolic participation by some others. A visit by a Gandhi family member to Punjab is bound to see the Opposition raking up the issue of Operation Bluestar in 1984 and the anti Sikh pogrom that had followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Rahul’s Yatra is no exception.

Just before the starting of the Punjab leg of the Yatra Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) national spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill launched a scathing attack on Rahul saying that the Congress and Rahul’s anti-Sikh sentiment has not washed away but has only ‘flourished and nourished’ over time.

Shergill said that people of Punjab have not forgotten how the Congress demolished the highest religio-temporal seat (Golden Temple) of the Sikhs with tanks and mortars during Operation Bluestar. He added that what happened in the year 1984 was not anti-Sikh riots but a ‘planned genocide’ of Sikhs by the Congress party.

Addressing the SAD’s political conference at Muktsar on January 14, Sukhbir Badal asked the Punjabis to think before welcoming Rahul in their midst saying that Indira Gandhi had ordered the attack on Sri Darbar Sahib while her son Rajiv Gandhi had engineered the genocide of Sikhs in 1984.

“The Gandhi family is responsible for allocating Punjab river waters to Rajasthan in violation of the Riparian principle. Similarly Indira Gandhi got work started on the Satluj Yamuna Link (SYL) canal and had it not been for resistance by the SAD, Punjab would have lost further water to Haryana leading to a catastrophe in the state,” he added.

But Rahul Gandhi was prepared for this assault by his political opponents. Responding to a media query on his attempts at ‘reconciliation’ with the Sikh community at Hoshiarpur, he said, “It's a question of affection. I have tremendous love and affection for the people of Punjab. I have huge respect for the Sikh community. India would not be India had it not been for the Sikh community. Sikh community is a part of the backbone of this country.”

On a question regarding Operation Bluestar he said and what had followed, he said that he fully endorsed the apology tendered by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and views expressed by his mother and former Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

Bombeli further pointed out, “His going to Darbar Sahib and his pictures in a turban doing the rounds has taken the wind out of the narrative being spun by certain hard line elements against him.”

There is also a view that the large participation by ex-servicemen including top officers of the armed and paramilitary forces in both Punjab and Haryana has put the BJP on the back foot on its narratives of nationalism with armed forces at the core. Balkaur Singh who is the father of slain singer Sidhu Moosewala joining the Yatra further added to the optics.

Observers say that being the main opposition party in Punjab, the Congress can make important electoral gains by playing its cards properly and for this the state leadership will have to unite.

During the Yatra, Rahul also drew a sharp reaction from Bhagwant Mann when he said that Punjab should not be run from Delhi. He suggested that Mann should not be a remote control of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. Mann took strong exception over ‘irrational’ statements of Rahul retorting that the pot was calling the kettle black.

Rahul later said that it was a historical fact that Punjab can only be run from Punjab. The people do not accept otherwise. Saying that it is Punjabi pride, self belief and confidence, he said that the Congress has respected it.

At the political level the Congress is set to launch a two month ‘Haath Se Haath Jodo Abhiyan’ as an extension to the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Starting January 26, the campaign aims at covering six lakh villages and 10 lakh polling booths.

In a letter addressed to the people and signed ‘aapka apna Rahul’ that was released last week, Rahul said the campaign is the party initiative to spread the message of unity and brotherhood. “Through this historic Abhiyan, the Congress party is extending its hand to you - lend a hand, come together to put the country back on the path of building a Swarnim Bharat - where every single Indian has an equal chance to fulfil their dreams,” the letter said.