More than just a long walk: Understanding the significance of Rahul Gandhi’s yatra

Amid the toxic socio-political discourse and disdain for Rahul Gandhi and his beleaguered party, it is important to understand the significance of the yatra in terms of its symbolism and possibilities

A L I ChouguleUpdated: Monday, September 26, 2022, 10:55 PM IST
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Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra | PTI

How does one evaluate the significance of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra? In an age of competitive and election-driven politics, information pollution and motivated political propaganda, it is not easy to come across an honest view on the Gandhi scion’s journey from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. Given that he has been systematically ridiculed, made fun of and called all kinds of names over the last eight years by the ruling regime and discredited by its ever-busy propaganda machinery, and considering that he has not been successful in leading the Congress party to a significant victory in elections, save Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2018, it is tempting to dismiss the 4,570-km yatra as an insignificant long walk of little or no consequence.

The attempts by the Bharatiya Janata Party to ridicule the yatra and reduce it to some sort of a political joke, or gossip around the T-shirt Rahul Gandhi has been wearing during the yatra or the so called ‘five-star’ facilities available in the container where Mr Gandhi rests and sleeps, are not unexpected, given the pattern of the ruling party’s incessant social media campaign and ceaseless personal attacks on him, often targeting him as an ‘entitled Shahzada’, a ‘part-time politician’ and a ‘failed’ leader. In view of his dented image and the crisis in the Congress party, marred by factionalism, series of electoral losses, endless defections and exits of senior leaders, it is not surprising that the BJP and its spokespersons have tried to devalue the yatra.

There is little doubt that the pliant mainstream media, particularly news television and a section of the print media, has been cynically critical of Rahul Gandhi and his party largely because its overwhelming tilt towards the ruling regime. Given Mr Gandhi’s lacklustre performance as Congress party president before he quit the post after the Congress’s debacle in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, political experts and commentators find it equally irresistible to look at the yatra purely through the electoral prism: whether the Bharat Jodo Yatra would at all help the Congress to make an electoral comeback, when the BJP, under the leadership of prime minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah, is a formidable opponent.

Yet, amid the toxic socio-political discourse and disdain for Rahul Gandhi and his beleaguered party, which is struggling to stay relevant electorally, it is important to understand the significance of the yatra in terms of its symbolism and possibilities. It is quite possible that it may not boost Mr Gandhi’s political image significantly or help the Congress improve its electoral performance substantially, but the yatra’s importance cannot be downplayed just because of the shortcomings of the party and imperfections of its leader. We may be unfamiliar with the aesthetics and philosophy of walking, but are not unacquainted with the significance of political yatras.

For a moment let’s forget political yatras and consider the importance, aesthetics and philosophy of walking. Human history, according to sociologists, is full of tales of travellers, pilgrims, saints and ordinary people who walked. Walking is a process of self-discovery as well as discovery of a culture or a civilisation. It is also a process of acquainting oneself with the lives of ordinary people, their problems, pain and suffering. Therefore, the possibilities implicit in a yatra are many and different people have harnessed its potential differently for different purpose.

India’s political history suggests that Mahatma Gandhi walked for self-discovery and to arouse the nation for the long struggle against colonial rule. Without the journeys that Gandhi undertook to understand the pain of a colonised nation, it may not have been possible for him to unite people on a common platform for the freedom movement that eventually defeated the economic and militarily might of the colonial power. Now, think of the times we are living in. There is a pervasive fear of the ruling regime that does not tolerate dissent and honest debate about the state of the nation. The overpowering might of the state has weighed heavily on the independent functioning of democratic institutions. The systematic attacks on fundamental rights, liberty and freedom of expression have created an atmosphere of an ‘undeclared emergency’.

The sort of hyper-nationalism that the ruling regime has sought to legitimise has created walls of separations between communities. Polarisation on religious lines and the incessant hate spewed by right-wing organisations against minorities, have created cultural and religious divisions between people of the majority and minority communities. Identity-driven politics of religion and caste has affected fraternity between people and communities. Then there is high inflation, record unemployment and falling living standards. Free-market capitalism, de-regulation and reduction in government spending on subsidies has further marginalised the poor, peasantry and the working class.

Against this backdrop of a divided and wounded nation, Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is not only a refreshing change from the humdrum of Opposition politics, it is also an effort to connect with people and unite them against an ‘authoritarian’ government. The focus of his yatra, as he said last week in an interaction with the media, is to listen to ordinary people, understand their problems and everyday struggles of survival. While on the one hand the yatra is an exercise in rebranding Rahul that will help deal with the image problem that hounds him, on the other hand, the yatra is an attempt to raise voice against those who are dividing the country on religious, social and cultural grounds.

Rahul Gandhi and his party are both an ideological and political opponent of the BJP. Even if the Yatra doesn’t lead to any significant electoral gains for the Congress, it may prove to be a catalyst to unite and heal a divided country.

The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule

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