India’s Rahul Gandhi begins second cross-country march to boost opposition ahead of polls

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi on Sunday began a new cross-country march from a troubled northeastern state, aiming to generate political momentum to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in general elections due by May.

The “Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra”, or Unite India Justice March, comes weeks after Gandhi’s Congress party suffered shock defeats in elections in three states, puncturing the mood of the opposition which intends to challenge Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Gandhi walked for 3,500-km (2,200 miles) from the southern tip of India to Kashmir in the north, ending a 135-day march in Jan. 2023 in a move to help revive the Congress and his popularity.

The latest march, setting off from remote northeastern Manipur state will cover 6,713 kilometers (4,200 miles) over 66 days, passing through 15 states, with some of the journey via car.

Gandhi decided to start in Manipur, a state that has witnessed fierce fighting since last year.

At least 180 people have died and thousands were displaced in clashes that erupted after a court order suggested privileges granted to minority Kukis also be extended to majority Meitei community.

“I was determined that the march should begin in Manipur…as we understand the pain, loss, hurt and sadness you have been through,” he said.

Congress ahead of the march said it is not a political campaign, but the list of concerns that will be highlighted during the march – unemployment, poverty, democracy and diversity and the BJP’s “politics of hatred and violence” – are key election issues for the opposition.

Opposition groups led by Congress last year formed a 28-party alliance called INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) to jointly fight the BJP in national elections but it has been riven by differences over giving up seats to field a common candidate against the BJP.

Gandhi’s latest march will pass through states which are strongholds of key INDIA partners and the extent of their participation will indicate the health of the opposition, analysts said.

(Reporting by Rupam Jain, writing by YP Rajesh; Editing by Sharon Singleton)