This reviled “dynast” is doing what no other politician in the country today has the guts to do: step out among the people, sans any filters or trappings, and live with them for five months
The party’s discomfiture and subdued sense of alarm has been evident in the desperate attempts to reduce the padayatra to T-shirts, containers, shoes, and to mock it as Bharat Todo or Congress Jodo yatra. But the mockery and lampooning are not working this time—at least not till the procession has travelled so far in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. This is what is confounding the BJP and explains its desperation.
The BJP has invested a lot of time and hundreds of crores of rupees over the last eight years to caricature Rahul Gandhi and portray him as an entitled dynast, as a part-time politician given to gaffes and incapable of the 24×7 exertion required in politics. The BJP has been getting votes from this deliberately created falsehood, whereas the real fiction lies in the hypedup persona of none other than Mr. Modi himself. The ‘Pappu’ smokescreen was conjured up to hide the fact that the emperor had no clothes—only his Mont Blanc pen, his Bvlgari dark glasses and Movado watches.
But Rahul Gandhi had no way to counter or dispel this viciously manufactured image of himself, because the BJP had also bought over practically the entire print and television media. In effect, he has been left with no effective channel of communication with the people. He can neither explain his policies to them, nor show that he is a quite different person from what the saffron party has painted him to be.
A lesser man would have given up, like the Mayawatis, the Navin Patnaiks, the Jagan Reddys and the Chandrababu Naidus. But Rahul Gandhi has decided instead to leapfrog back into the past and draw on one of India’s most potent weapons of struggle—the padayatra or foot march. It was used with great effect by Mahatma Gandhi, in the 1960s by Vinoba Bhave for his Bhoodan movement, and in the more recent past by Chandra Shekhar and Jayaprakash Narayan.
India—and, ironically, Hinduism itself—has always had great reverence for the padayatra, for it symbolises sacrifice, repentance, renunciation and austerity. It is associated with pilgrimages, holy men, non-violent struggle against oppression. The Bharat Jodo Yatra is therefore drawing on hundreds of years of hoary tradition, memories of the freedom struggle, even one of the essential elements of Hinduism. No wonder the BJP is worried! It has been hoisted with its own petard, in a way.
The emperor is never without his royal plumage and trappings, he is afraid of being seen without them and keeps a distance from the people, visible only on distant stages, LCD screens and holograms, the distance bridged by TV cameras, teleprompters and trucked in supporters. In his new avatar, he can never do what Rahul Gandhi is now doing through his Yatra—exposing himself to the crowds one on one, rubbing shoulders with the ordinary citizen, touching skin, tying a little girl’s sandals, dancing with tribal women.
What perhaps has the BJP worried is that the Yatra will highlight in sharp contrast the difference between the Emperor and Rahul Gandhi. The voters will get to see for themselves Gandhi’s innate qualities which the darbari media has so far obscured—his basic decency and sincerity, the lack of any posturing or pretensions, his compassion, the non-oratorical conversations, his accessibility, the moral core which makes him unfit for the Machiavellian politics of today.
This is the real message the Bharat Jodo Yatra seeks to convey; the problems of inflation, unemployment, cronyism, Chinese intrusion, social discord will of course follow and will now sound more plausible to the people. And the strategy appears to be succeeding. It is being reported that 50,000-70,000 people are participating in the Yatra everyday, and the numbers keep going up everyday. At this rate, over 150 days, Rahul Gandhi will be able to personally connect with about 60 to 70 million people, a prospect that should take the BJP (and some obdurate, short-sighted Opposition leaders too) back to the drawing board.
And I have no doubt that the midnight oil is being burnt in the BJP’s war rooms to prepare a toolkit to counter the Yatra and disrupt it or at least to put the brakes on its momentum. Troglodytes like Sambit Patra and congenital dissimulators like Smriti Irani are already on the job. This toolkit will contain both legal and extra-legal machinations, including denial of police permission for the march, imposition of Section 144 CrPC, concoced security threats, instigated violence, organised counter protests. A couple of old cases (National Herald?) may be reopened so that Rahul Gandhi could be summoned to Delhi again and forced to leave the march. The process has already begun, with the NCPCR (National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights) issuing a notice to the Congress for “using” children in the march!
The real test for Rahul Gandhi and his team will come when he enters BJP-ruled states like Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. It will be a two-fold test: gauging the people’s support and the BJP’s unscrupulousness. The latter will be in direct proportion to the former – the more the popular support, the more desperate the measures which will be adopted by the state administrations.
The opposition will not be from the BJP alone—other ‘Opposition’ leaders with egos larger than their vote shares will not welcome Rahul Gandhi upstaging them before 2024, and will try their utmost to revile and undermine the Yatra. The opening salvos have already been fired by Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee. And then there are the opportunistic weevils within the Congress itself, the likes of Ghulam Nabi, Anand Sharma and Manish Tewari playing their own one-upmanship games.
The Congress is in a transformational moment, and should not be provoked into reckless responses. It should be restrained, not respond in kind, like the forgettable “khaki knickers on fire” tweet. It should never take its eyes off the central and visceral message of the Yatra.
‘What is this message?’ people ask, some derisively. I think it was best answered by Rahul Gandhi himself when a journalist asked him this question: “The message of the Bharat Jodo Yatra is humility, compassion and respect for people. We are not abusing anybody, not threatening anybody. We are walking with humility.”
I feel that was very well put. More than anything else, India needs a healing touch. It needs a compassionate leader, not an Ozymandias. This, I believe, is the message of the long walk. Rahul Gandhi is the messenger and the message.
It remains to be seen whether 150 days from now Rahul Gandhi’s trust in himself and the people of India will be vindicated or not. But, whatever the outcome electorally, this reviled “dynast” is doing what no other politician in the country today has the guts to do: step out among the people, sans any filters or trappings, and live with them for five months.
He stands head and shoulders above his peers in his unrelenting opposition to the Supreme Leader and his cohorts, and in his refusal to compromise with his core beliefs. Five months from now, I don’t think Rahul Gandhi will have a lot left to prove. It will be the citizens of India who will have to prove themselves and where they stand.