Rahul’s message of love.

Rahul is marching the entire length of India; I join him to find out why

The yatris I walked with held up the image of an alternative India

Prashun Bhaumik | New Delhi | 5 December, 2023 | 11:20 PM

The scion of that most famous political dynasty wants to bring India ‘together’ after years of dangerous division

How does an opposition politician seize the initiative in India, a vast and populous country with an increasingly authoritarian ruling party and state? Rahul Gandhi has an answer, and it involves a pair of trainers.

Bharat Jodo Yatra, a “journey bringing India together”, is the name of a long march that Gandhi, a prominent member of the Indian National Congress party, has been leading from the country’s southernmost tropical tip to its icy north. He has covered about 1,900 miles (3,000km) so far, walking 12-15 miles every day, with hundreds of others drawn from his party, as well as civil society members and celebrities. Thousands line the route wherever the march passes to catch a glimpse of the famous politician and to show support. Since anyone is allowed to join, I decided to tag along for two days.

My journey began as soon as I alighted at Sawai Madhopur train station in Rajasthan. A young doctor, one of the yatris (marchers), had come to town to collect medicines needed at the camp, but was stranded. As we chatted in the car, he said he was deeply worried about the direction the country was taking and wanted badly to be part of something positive. This was the gist of what many other people said to me. No lofty ideological statements, but simple motivations such as: “We can do better than hate.”

Why march? There is the historical resonance – Mahatma Gandhi famously marched against British rule in 1930; marching is part of the repertoire of Indian politics. But as Rahul Gandhi has argued, the real reason is that the streets are the only arena left for India’s opposition. That is, in an India where the Modi government has weaponised the police, courts, tax and other enforcement institutions to hound any critic; where big businesses compete to join the elite ranks of Modi’s billionaire cronies; and where the mainstream media have become a post-truth foghorn for government, marching en masse is the only way to make visible the fact that many disagree with the ruinous direction in which the government is taking India.

Predictably, the yatra has not been given attention by most of the mainstream media and many Indians away from its route, including in the international diaspora, do not even know it is happening.

Each day began at 6am. In Rajasthan, in December, this meant it was pitch dark and bitterly cold. As we huddled in our shawls and jackets, our bodies warmed with the chants and slogans that began as soon as we set off. The first major break came at 10.30am at “camp”: here, hundreds of mattresses, quilts and pillows were laid out for the yatris to rest, with lunch served at an adjoining marquee at 12.

The whole operation was like the military campaign of a mammoth, non-violent army. The walk resumed again about 3pm, ending at the day’s finish point marked by a giant helium balloon you could spot a kilometre away. Women walked in crisp saris, men in the same clothes day after day – the variety of languages, backgrounds and temperaments was mind-boggling. It was a mini-India that seemed to be on the march. We all know this India exists, but rarely get to experience it first hand, all at once.

On the second day, I walked alongside Gandhi. As in earlier encounters, I found him to be courteous and cerebral, eager for a back and forth conversation. We debated the usefulness of western political thought in furthering our understanding of Indian politics. It was possible to challenge him and disagree in a way you can’t with most Indian politicians – certainly not with Narendra Modi, who refuses to engage even with press conferences. With Modi, Indian citizens are given the shock and awe strategy of lavish stage-managed events. In contrast, the sight of Rahul Gandhi, unkempt beard and trainers, walking along surrounded by ordinary people makes for a compelling political image.

It is true, however, that the Congress party’s failure in recent years to win enough elections is also blamed on Gandhi. He has been accused of being a part-time politician, a reluctant and ineffective president of the party, dubbed “pappu” (a nickname for a young, naive boy) by his opponents. (Rahul is the son of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and grandson of former prime minister Indira Gandhi.)

In opposition, the party organisation had become increasingly moribund, its members demoralised. But the yatra, party workers say, has gone some way in addressing this. It has given the rank and file a sense of purpose, having organised this enormous roadshow, and suggests that the “pappu” label no longer fits. The Congress lost the Gujarat elections (in Modi’s home state) during the yatra but this did not seem to dampen spirits. The hard work of winning hearts and minds remains to be done.

The last time a yatra caught the imagination, it was the BJP’s LK Advani’s Rath Yatra atop a modified Toyota SUV in the early 1990s. Traversing the country, the procession left violence in its wake and led eventually to the destruction of the 16th-century Babri mosque by Hindu mobs.

The current Indian government’s ideology is built on its legacy. The yatris I walked with instead held up the image of an alternative India, one of compassion and solidarity. The question is which path the Indian population will choose to take?

Dr Mukulika Banerjee is a professor at the London School of Economics
Courtesy The Guardian