OPN RAHUL Bharat Jodo Yatra
An elderly woman greets Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during the party's Bharat Jodo Yatra Image Credit: ANI

We wake up at 4am in Karnataka’s Tumkur district to reach the Bharat Jodo Yatra by 5:30am. At KB Cross, a band of folk dancers are charging up the energies of the Congress workers who have assembled here. In another 30 minutes, Rahul Gandhi will arrive and the Yatra will begin walking for the day.

There is something to be said about this morning energy, transforming this physical hard work into a political effort.

It gives the people here a sense of mission and purpose. The main purpose here is to walk — whatever it is you are walking for, walk you must.

It is like an expiation, a cleansing of the soul. It is no easy task to walk even a single day in the Bharat Jodo Yatra. The physical stamina has to match a personal, political and an emotional commitment.

Exiting Kerala. After Karnataka, Rahul Gandhi will be navigating to the next state via Gudeballur. The leader is scheduled to cover 376 kilometres in Telangana within a span of a fortnight Image Credit: All India Congress Committee/Twitter

For the last 8 years or so, the Congress party has looked like it is doing “nothing”. The Bharat Jodo Yatra at least addresses that grouse. At the Yatra everyone asks each other, “So what do you think of this Yatra? How is it going? What is it achieving?” And the common answer is, “At least something is happening.”

In the shadow of Nothing, it is an achievement to have Something. This is what is especially important for Congress leaders and workers who have been a dispirited lot over the last few years, unable to hide their disappointment with party leaders in drawing room conversations.

The morning energy, the bands, the music, the festive sense, the endless banners and hoardings across the Yatra route — it all charges up party workers, giving them enthusiasm and hope, not something Congress workers get often these days. Whether they have been assigned duty or they have come willingly, they are excited to be here. The energy is infectious.

It is like an expiation, a cleansing of the soul. It is no easy task to walk even a single day in the Bharat Jodo Yatra. The physical stamina has to match a personal, political and an emotional commitment


A platform for many causes

I went as an observer, a student of Indian politics to experience the lived reality of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. I was travelling with a group of public health activists who were kind enough to suffer a cynical journalist from Delhi. But why were they going? They have a worldview about public health in India they want politicians to consider.

Extensive efforts were made to take colour printouts and get a meeting with Rahul Gandhi to further the reforms they would like to see in public health in India. “It’s a platform,” they said, “we’ll use any platform we can get.”

It is the job of all political parties, but particularly those in opposition, to become a platform for a society to exchange views and think about its future. Bharat Jodo Yatra’s importance as a platform cannot be overstated. Like the Congress party, opposition voters too have felt demoralised and dispirited over the last few years.

They need this dose of hope, they need to feel Something is happening, they need a space where they can express their political grievances without the fear of abusive trolling or legal harassment.

OPN Rahul Gandhi
Rahul Gandhi waves to the crowd during his Bharat Jodo Yatra, in Raichur, Karnataka, India Image Credit: ANI

A street theatre group here and a rights activist there — all kinds of people walk in the Bharat Jodo Yatra, reminding us of the original idea of the Congress party, which was to be an umbrella organisation representing India’s diversity.

As in all such political events, success or otherwise is measured by the size of the crowd. Every day the people at the Yatra assure themselves of the success of their mission by seeing the number of people who are part of the Yatra. The crowds are strong, most of them mobilised by the Karnataka Congress and its leaders.

This isn’t as big an achievement as it seems: a party that won 12 crore votes should be able to pull crowds. If anything it shows the Congress has not been using this asset for the last 8 years.

Fitness Contest

The greatest complaint of the walkers is not that they have to walk so much — often around 20 kms a day. Their greatest complaint is that Rahul Gandhi walks too fast. Even the poor Karnataka police men and women have a hard time. Many of them have ditched their regulation boots for sneakers.

There are many cars as part of the “padyatra” because there are people who want to see the Yatra and be seen there but are unable to match Rahul Gandhi’s marathon walking. There are those who had intended to walk the entire 3,500 kms Yatra but quit in a few days.

Very few are genuinely walking as much as Rahul Gandhi, like young Chandy Oomen of Kerala who’s going one step further by walking barefoot.

Read more

Many zoom ahead of Rahul Gandhi, in cars or by starting before him, and then wait for him to take over. Rahul Gandhi has pre-scheduled stops: going to a temple here or meeting a group of farmers there. During these stops many walkers walk ahead because Rahul Gandhi will overtake them anyway.

Gandhi is not content with just walking fast. Sometimes he starts sprinting or doing push-ups on the road. Sometimes his fellow Congress leaders, older and not as fit as him, are also forced to join in these exercises.

The RSS may be tempted to invite Rahul Gandhi to their morning Physical Training classes. Gandhi’s critics have often said he’d be better off running a non-profit than a political party. But his fitness fetish suggests he would have done best as an athlete. He is also known to be an instructor-level scuba diver and a black belt holder in Aikido, the Japanese martial art.

Prisoner of security

This commitment to sports and fitness has no doubt come at the cost of politics, but Rahul Gandhi is now combining his personal passion with his inherited profession.

The padyatra format, starting with Mahatma Gandhi, is no doubt a powerful one as it allows the leader to mingle with the masses. People see you, hear you, can say things to you, can ask you questions.

In theory this should also address Rahul Gandhi’s inaccessible image. He stopped doing his Janta Durbar long ago. Party leaders often complain they can’t get an appointment with their de facto president for months. Leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia have quit the Congress citing this reason. His foreign holidays have often made more headlines than his election speeches.

Images of the Bharat Jodo Yatra address this problem, showing him talking to all kinds of people, both from the party and the public. In reality, every such meeting has to be pre-arranged, defeating the purpose of a padyatra. The “Z Plus” countrywide security cover that Rahul Gandhi carries ensures a security ring around him.

He walks not with people but with security. Policemen carry a tight rope all around him, stretching the rope while walking at Rahul Gandhi’s pace, making sure nobody enters this ring without permission.

A pan-India walkathon
Rahul Gandhi launched the 3,570-km Bharat Jodo Yatra on September 7 from Kanyakumari. The march will conclude in Kashmir. The pan-India walkathon by the Congress leader will take around 150 days to complete

Just one photo

Without the security ring, Rahul Gandhi would be mobbed, and then there are genuine security concerns. For this reason, a 3,500 long padyatra is not the right format for Rahul Gandhi. It is not the walking but the interactions with people that change political fortunes.

Since all interactions have to be pre-scheduled anyway, a bus yatra would have helped give more time for public engagement. The walking is only a fitness show-off.

Unable to walk so much, I knock on the window of a car on the other side of the highway, and a kind woman gives me a lift. The car manages to go ahead of the Rahul Gandhi security ring, after which we stop. The lady is a Congress worker from Bengaluru. She spent an hour trying to get a photograph of herself with Rahul Gandhi in the frame, but to no avail.

The Yatra passes through highways, where there are few people to watch it. That’s perhaps why the Telangana unit of the Congress party managed to prevail upon Rahul Gandhi’s aides to make sure the Yatra at least spends one day in Hyderabad. In Karnataka, the Yatra did not go to Bengaluru.

To walk from Kanyakumari to Kashmir you have to take the highway. How many people actually get to see you is the sort of concern only election-minded politicians have. For Rahul Gandhi, power is poison.

Bharat Jodo Yatra has been dubbed as an unifying march with hope riding on it Image Credit: ANI

‘I don’t know why he’s coming’

There is a lunch and rest break from 1 to 4pm, after which the Yatra walks for another 3 hours. I went ahead and sat at a dhaba near the end point of the Yatra. I asked the dhaba owner why Rahul Gandhi was in Tumkur. “I don’t know why he is coming here but I know that he is coming,” he replied.

The cameras around Rahul Gandhi make sure the Yatra produces good visuals every day, and sometimes they may go viral. But there are no soundbites of Rahul Gandhi grabbing attention. He’s not saying anything that would give a clear national message. This is once again thanks to the vague, intangible theme ‘Bharat Jodo’ (Unite India).

If the Bharat Jodo Yatra had a more tangible name and purpose, it would have reached the dhaba owner. Such is the vagueness of the Yatra’s theme that its media team itself goes around asking participants, ‘Why are you walking?’

One delegate from north India tells me the Yatra was much better in Kerala. “The people there were more disciplined and more politically aware. We didn’t have to tell them why we were walking. They already knew.”

By choosing to not go to Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi has already conceded defeat in the assembly elections in these two states. If the party loses these two states, and if it is overshadowed by the Aam Aadmi Party in Gujarat, people will wonder what Rahul Gandhi’s Yatra is achieving.

As Gandhi’s scruffy beard grows to count the Yatra’s days, it is beginning to look like Forrest Gump’s march.