Opposition party members are holding the rally, dubbed "Unite India Rally", from Kanyakumari town on the southern tip of India and will try to reach northernmost city of Srinagar in India-administered Kashmir in about 150 days.
India's main opposition Congress party members have gathered 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 right-wing 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 to reach Srinagar city in northernmost India-administered 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.
"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.
Rahul Gandhi starts his #BharatJodoYatra from Kanyakumari. No other leader in the world has ever walked 3700km for any political mobilization. Handing over of tricolor by Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin to Gandhi is a strong message to India’s fascist forces. pic.twitter.com/RvidcGSTC0— Ashok Swain (@ashoswai) September 7, 2022
Hate can lead to 'civil war'
"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.
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.
Analysts say Congress lacks a counter-narrative to the BJP's politics, which is infused with a heavy dose of "Hindutva" — a supremacist ideology that believes in making India an exclusive Hindu state.
The march "is not a gimmick. Rahul Gandhi sincerely believes in religious harmony. But the people are not interested. So, it will fail," said political analyst Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Junior.
"Rahul and Congress would have to work hard on the ground, find out the problems people are facing in different parts of the country," he told the AFP news agency.
"(The people) need someone to voice their dissatisfaction."