India's Congress braces for cross-country march to revive support

·2-min read
A supporter waves a flag of India's main opposition Congress party at a massive rally organised by the party against inflation, at Ramlila Ground

By Shivam Patel

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's main opposition Congress party members gathered on Wednesday for a cross-country march against "hate and division", hoping to turn its fortunes around and regain some of the popularity it has lost to the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Party members will begin walking from the coastal town of Kanyakumari on the southern tip of India on Thursday, planning to cover more than 3,500 kilometres (2,175 miles) to reach Srinagar city in the northernmost Himalayan region of Kashmir in about 150 days.

The march, named "Bharat Jodo Yatra" or "Unite India Rally", is led by a scion of the influential Gandhi family and comes on the heels of several veteran members leaving the party.

Former federal minister Ghulam Nabi Azad quit the Congress late last month after issuing a scathing letter that blamed Rahul Gandhi, the party's de facto second-in-command and son of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, for its decline.

"I lost my father to the politics of hate and division," Rahul Gandhi wrote on Twitter on Wednesday after visiting the site where his father, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated in 1991 by an ethnic Tamil suicide bomber.

"I will not lose my beloved country to it too," he said.

The BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has consolidated its control since 2014, when it came to power in nationwide elections, by winning many states still ruled by the Congress. The BJP has been riding a Hindu-nationalist wave, while the 137-year-old Congress has typically promoted secular politics.

"Hate has brewed in the country in the name of caste and religion. If we don't control this now, there can be a civil war," Ashok Gehlot, a Congress leader and chief minister of western Rajasthan state, told reporters ahead of the march on Wednesday.

The march comes ahead of elections in the western state of Gujarat - Modi's home state - this year and the central state of Madhya Pradesh next year, both of which are currently ruled by the BJP.

(Reporting by Shivam Patel in New Delhi; Editing by Hugh Lawson)