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Will Bharat Jodo Yatra Reinvent Rahul Gandhi’s Politics?

Prashant Nihal |
A padayatra is a means to issue ethical appeals, forge mass contact and an exercise in creating a new image backed by a reimagined politics of the masses.
bharat jodo yatra

Image Courtesy: PTI

The Congress party’s Bharat Jodo Yatra has evoked memories of the rich history of padayatras—journeys on foot—of various leaders and their political-electoral dividends. But few have noted the political modalities in which this yatra operates. In the given political context, it is vital to analyse the Bharat Jodo Yatra through the symbols and imagery it invokes, its idiom and languages, and the history and legacy it claims. Equally critical are the ideas and beliefs it propagates, the ethos it appeals to, and the emotions it hopes to generate.

Ethical messaging, political mobilisation and mass contact

The padayatra has a long and illustrious history in the Indian subcontinent’s political landscape. It is a political act, especially as a means of political communication, exercised through walking collectively. And it is essentially based on dialogue or dialogue-based communications and the forging of relations. It has been profoundly attached to the language of protest and communication, serving as a tool to generate consciousness and bring the otherwise invisible into the visible or mainstream political and discursive space.

In her 2017 essay, “Padayatras and the Changing Nature of Political Communication in India”, academic Radhika Kumar points out how effectively Mahatma Gandhi used the padayatra to rally the masses during the freedom movement. She notes it “continues to be a politically relevant strategy used not only for mobilisation but also for partisan gains that capitalise on its imagery”. Besides the anti-colonial struggle, Gandhi later used the padayatra, mainly as the peace march, to bring peace and harmony and quell the anger and hate that fanned the riots between communities after the Partition.

Appeals to Save Constitutional Ethos and Nation’s Moral Fabric

The Congress party’s 3,570-km long Bharat Jodo Yatra, covering 12 states and two Union Territories from Kanyakumari to Kashmir over 150 days, has a declared objective. It seeks to unite the country against the crisis of politics becoming interlaced with hatred, intolerance and divisions in the name of religion, caste and community. The only other yatra that outnumbered it in sheer length was the Bharat Yatra of former prime minister Chandra Shekhar, which entailed a 4,260-km walk stretching from Kanyakumari to Rajghat and went on from 6 January 1983 to 25 June 1983.

The ongoing yatra is a kind of Satyagraha, too, aiming to unite Indians by appealing to people’s faith in humanity, fraternity, harmony, and compassion. It also reminds them of their duty to fight for these values, even if it means they must bear the suffering that accompanies such an effort. Put simply, this yatra is an ideological counterpart to Hindutva majoritarianism. Political forces like the Aam Aadmi Party critique the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for its performance on governance indices and welfarism or the registers of morality and corruption. However, they shy away from countering the ideological positions that the BJP harbours and propagates, which are crucial to sustaining democracy, federalism, secularism and other ideals enshrined in the Constitution as founding principles.

Psephologist-politician Yogendra Yadav says to resist majoritarian nationalism, “we must turn to the three ideological pillars of Dravidian politics: regionalism, rationalism and social justice”. He argues for turning to the idea of a state-nation instead of a nation-state. Diverse India must foster an ethos of federalism. However, what Yadav calls regionalism is Dravidian nationalism, an alternative imagination of the nation vis-à-vis the Aryan vision of country and nationality.

Bharat Jodo Yatra as Rahul Gandhi’s Self-Fashioning Effort

Bharat Jodo Yatra is not Rahul Gandhi’s first padayatra. He undertook a 105-km walk from Bhatta-Parsaul in Greater Noida to Aligarh in 2011 to protest the alleged atrocities of the Mayawati government ruling Uttar Pradesh at the time against farmers regarding the acquisition of their land. Gandhi’s yatra is somewhat similar to Chandra Shekhar’s Bharat Yatra in that neither solicited votes nor engaged in political rhetoric during their journeys. Instead, Chandra Shekhar focused on listening to people he met during the padayatra. In fact, its explicit purpose was to acquaint himself with conditions in rural India, and he had termed the padayatra as “educative”.

Personalisation of politics is inbuilt in the padayatra mode, as political leaders hope to project an ascetic, charismatic, messianic or popular image through it. The Bharat Jodo Yatra is also Gandhi’s exercise in self-fashioning. Political scientist Rajarshi Dasgupta wrote about the concept of self-fashioning in his essay “The Ascetic Modality: A Critique of Communist Self-fashioning”. He discusses the idea of self-making as a constitutive aspect of becoming communist, as reflected in efforts such as de-classing oneself, and this self-cultivation process largely occurs in the ascetic modality. But is Gandhi on the path to becoming a new political ascetic in liberal democratic politics? Does he, through the yatra, aim to project the image of an austere and organic leader accessible to all and who relates to the difficulties of the masses?

The BJP seems to be attacking this aspect of self-fashioning and calling out his asceticism by questioning the price of the t-shirt he is wearing during the yatra and the amenities available in the “containers” that house the yatra’s participants during breaks.

In his 1963 essay, “India’s Political Idiom”, WH Morris-Jones distinguished three main languages in India’s political life. These three political idioms can be roughly characterised as modern, traditional, and saintly. Morris-Jones argues, “The modern language of politics is the language of the Indian Constitution and the Courts; of parliamentary debate; of the higher administration; of the upper levels of all the main political parties; of the entire English press and much of the Indian languages press. It is a language which speaks of policies and interests, programmes and plans. It expresses itself in arguments and representations, discussions and demonstrations, deliberations and decisions.”

The traditional idiom, then, is primarily at play in rural India and is constitutive of the local and the vernacular. According to Morris-Jones, “Caste (or subcaste or ‘community’) is the core of traditional politics. To it belongs a complete social ethos. It embraces all and is all-embracing. Every man is born into a particular communal or caste group and inherits a place and a station in society from which his whole behaviour and outlook may be said, in idea at least, to be derived.”

The third idiom is saintly politics, which alludes to selflessness and morality. Morris-Jones argues that it “is important as a language of comment rather than description or practical behaviour”. He considers Vinoba Bhave, who toured India on foot while preaching self-sacrifice, love and politics without power, an outstanding figure representing this idiom. Some aspects of Mahatma Gandhi’s politics also fall under the saintly category of politics. These three idioms of politics are neither independent nor operate in water-tight compartments. Instead, they together constitute the political space or domain of Indian politics. Morris-Jones writes, “A Bhave talking of the corruption of party politics appeals at once to the modern notions of public spirit and civic conscience and the traditional ideas of non-competitive accepted authority working through a general ‘consensus’.” The Congress party has remained a crucial meeting ground for all three languages of politics.

For us, the third category—the saintly idiom—is essential while analysing the Bharat Jodo Yatra, for it can be identified with Mahatma Gandhi’s political style. The saintly idiom has the marginalised (or the margins) at its centre. It carries a widespread appeal for all sections of society irrespective of caste, class, gender or religion. To return to Morris-Jones’s words, “In people’s mind, there is an ideal of disinterested selflessness by contrast with which almost all normal conduct can seem very shabby.”

Saintly politics generates sentiments. In that sense, the direct impact of the Bharat Jodo Yatra is less significant than the indirect effects, for they may end up repairing Gandhi’s broken image or his infantilised personality. A programme of mass contact and direct communication with the party workers, sympathisers, voters and ordinary people would undoubtedly benefit Gandhi and enrich his experience. The physical and performative aspects of politics can never be undervalued, as political practices are never about just critique. They entail real physical action as well. Politics is also about presenting an alternative to what is being critiqued. But to have an alternative, one needs a vision, which, in turn, cannot exist without taking stock of the concrete challenges. Put another way, Bharat Jodo Yatra must function as a stocktaking exercise for the Congress party and its leader, Gandhi.

Consider the slogans coined for the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the statements of those leading it. “We have a history of service. We have a legacy of sacrifice”, “Our diversity strengthens our resolve”, “We are all set! To unite India. To root out hate. To step towards a better tomorrow!”, “Nafrat Chhodo, Bharat Jodo!”, “Miley Kadam-Judey Watan”, “Every step in Bharat Jodo Yatra reinforces Vivekanand’s universal brotherhood.” Gandhi, at the very beginning of the Yatra, asserts, “Love will conquer hate. Hope will defeat fear.” Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said, “Our nationalism flows out of the Constitution and humanity. Their nationalism is based on hate and injustice.” Gandhi also began his yatra by paying tributes at the site of the assassination of his father, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Love, sacrifice and service for one’s country are crucial constituents of the politics of nationalism.

Yatra and its Possible Premonitions

To succeed, the Bharat Jodo Yatra would have to find a language to address the growing economic apartheid of class and caste and rising unemployment and inflation, alongside the urgency to tackle hate politics and expanding religious rift. Several spokespersons and Congress leaders have said that the intention is to highlight the country’s economic, social and political conditions through the yatra. But, the overall style and emphasis of the yatra privileges the abstract over the concrete. “Idea of India”, “National Unity and Integrity”, and “Sarva Dharma Sambhav” are abstract ideas, and the Yatra rests on them while invoking emotions such as hope, fear, love, and determination. These ideas and values are sustained through concrete legal provisions, governance, the Constitution, and tools that give them social and political legitimacy. Hence, the Bharat Jodo Yatra must highlight the plight of people and show the grim challenges that lie ahead—it must also indict the ruling government directly for pursuing policies that led to these conditions.

What is the constituency Bharat Jodo Yatra hopes to address in terms of social groups or political associations? Is it the marginalised, the farmers, the workers and the youth? Or is it the Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis and backward sections? Since this padayatra has no stated electoral ambition, what does it promise? Is it not just abstract in content but also empty of promises? These questions demand serious reflection if the yatra has to succeed and not become yet another political exercise in the name of defeating Hindutva majoritarianism.

Political scientist Ajay Gudavarthy argues in “The Price of Opposition’s Silence on Matters Affecting Minorities” that since majoritarianism is “linked to the anxieties of the majority community vis-à-vis the loss of privileges; it works up a logic where not only the narrative of polarisation but also the counter-narrative against polarisation tends to further polarise.” Therefore, as Bharat Jodo enters its second leg, it must be particularly cautious of this tricky aspect. As it primarily focuses on resisting hate politics and uniting a fragmented society, it runs the risk that it will end up feeding majoritarianism. It is trying to instil ethics in politics when politics has taken a Machiavellian turn. It attempts to create a register of ethics and morals against the language of power and authority. This is why Gandhi has been invoking a lineage of service and sacrifice instead of the power and legacy of a dynasty.

The author studied at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, and teaches political science. The views are personal.

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