[WSMDiscuss] Bharat Jodo Yatra: Yet Another (Very Engaged) Note from the Ground Zero

Sukla Sen sukla.sen at gmail.com
Tue Oct 25 14:18:14 CEST 2022

[The note reproduced below in full is of course, unedited except for the

The note, an intensely engaged one from a feminist who had been a critic of
the Congress party all her life is noteworthy if not for anything ele only
for that reason.
She is of course not the only one of her kind. To take just one example,
the elderly but spirited mother of the slain celebrated Bangalore
journalist Gauri Lankesh had, just a few days back, walked hand-in-hand
with Rahul Gandhi together with her other daughter. So did quite a few
prominent transgender activists. These video clips have been posted by the
Yatra itself. These two -- out of so many -- are, perhaps, the most
That clearly adds to the argument put forward that the Yatra has stirred up
hopes even well beyond the traditional support base of the GOP.
However, there is a large gap between the mission of the Yatra and the
Congress Party of the day. That too has come out in no uncertain terms.
The issue is whether the momentum gathered by the Yatra would eventually
translate itself into a reborn Congress -- ready and fit to carry the
struggle ahead? To save "India" -- and its people -- from the impending
doom? That's the billion-rupee question.

In order to elicit a positive outcome, we also have to play some roles?]

*A walk of hope!*

A. Suneetha*

I joined Bharat Jodo Yatra out of a sense of desperation and hope.
Desperation borne out of the rapid depletion of space for dissent,
shrinking civil liberties, collapse of institutions including the higher
judiciary, elections becoming a stand in for democracy, open attempts to
reduce India’s Muslim population to second class citizenship and imminent
threat of Hindu rashtra overtaking the Indian constitution in the next
election has been a cause of intense worry and anxiety. Just like scores of
friends and colleagues, I too have been suffering from the debilitating
fear that the several political parties, with a rich political history of
challenging the hegemony of the Congress and even replacing it, have been
failing to challenge the new hegemon, the Sangh Parivar and its political
party, the BJP or the unparallelled slide of this country into
authoritarianism. Some have even been mimicking it at their locations with
slight variations.

Not that there has not been a pushback against this slide. The massive
peoples’ movements against the despicable CAA and NRC and farmers’
movement, both led by India’s minority communities, have definitely done so.
Most violations of civil liberties and human rights continue to be
challenged by the marginalised communities, including women. Small and big
protests against closures of public sector units and financial
irregularities too continue. These numerous struggles and protests
sometimes found some support from some political parties that somehow have
not brought themselves to articulate an alternative and sustained vision
for India’s political future.

Post 2014, the Indian National Congress meanwhile was shrinking too, losing
out state after state, unable to build on the social democratic policies
and laws that it undertook, failing to hold onto its own cadre and leaders,
and most importantly, with a leader who appeared reluctant to lead. Would
he take the lead or not and when have been the questions that troubled only
the Congress party initially. After the BJP’s victory in 2019, they have
become important to everyone, as the prospects for a coalition of regional
parties receded. Having been one of those who gave up on the Congress
party’s ability to come together and fight, of late I turned into someone
invested precisely in its revival and looked for Rahul Gandhi to take up
the leadership seriously. But what kind of leadership -is leading the party
into electoral victories enough? Madhya Pradesh and other states proved
that it was not. Do we not need someone who would take a strong position
against the slide into authoritarianism and the Sangh Parivar kind of

Bharat Jodo Yatra with its clear messaging against the current atmosphere
of hate politics and anti-authoritarianism offered hope in this context. A
politician who is willing to walk for 3500 kms meeting people on the way
definitely seemed interested in leadership I thought. So I joined two
friends, Tejaswini Madabhushi and Navika Harshe to walk the Andhra Pradesh
leg of the Yatra for four days. We had apprehensions about our ability to
walk and some concerns about crowds and safety but decided to test
ourselves. We also hoped to meet Rahul Gandhi but were not sure about our

As Navika was a member of the Telangana Professional Congress, arrangements
were made for our accommodation and transport. We were joined by another
member of the Maharashtra Professional Congress and four of us hung out
together through all the four days. We also volunteered our services to the
media wing of the Yatra. Making notes from the press meets and gathering
the news reportage in Telugu about the Yatra were our task, which did not
take much of our time and seemed little in relation to the experience that
the Yatra promised to offer.

The three and a half days Yatra started at Halaharvi village but we joined
midway as our bus reached slightly later than the starting point. It took
us a while to figure out where we were and how to navigate the walk. While
Rahul Gandhi led the Yatra walking in the midst of a security ring, a lot
of Yatris walked ahead of him, including Seva Dal led by Digvijaya Singh,
Yogendra Yadav and some of the Bharat Yatris who were part of the permanent
contingent accompanying Rahul Gandhi. A lot of political leaders either
walked at their own pace and those who could not, followed in cars and
other vehicles. Villagers joined whenever they felt like, walked for a few
kilometres and returned.

The atmosphere was festive and hopeful. Throughout the route children,
women and men waited eagerly to get a glimpse of RG, waved and shouted
deliriously happily when they spotted him. Some tried to shower petals,
some offered aarti, some wanted to submit petitions and some held placards
about issues that concern them. There were dances, drums, children running
with flags and a few adventurous men rushing ahead on their motorcycles to
get a glimpse of RG. During the lunch break detailed presentations were
made by groups of people -Amaravati farmers, Polavaram displaced tribals,
Valmiki Boyas seeking ST status etc. When the Yatra resumed, some others
walked alongside -activists, victims, survivors and political
representatives from the Congress.

The Bharat Yatris came from very diverse backgrounds. Some are social
activists, some long standing Congress workers, some professionals all of
whom said they were inspired by the idea of walking India. It was such a
grand and irresistible idea that they put aside their professional life and
family life and decided to devote nearly six months of their life to this.
They believe it is a meditative exercise, the body pains being a routine
part. The Yatra would eventually change themselves and the political
landscape they believe. In fact, RG himself spoke of it as tapasya for the
country in a press meet during the AP Yatra. That it was beyond elections,
beyond party politics for him. It was something that he said that the
country required at this moment, to make each other understand what we are

Learning from the first day’s experience, from the second we walked ahead
of the Yatra, behind the media van, as we did not have to push our way
through the throng of people at the back. As four women, conspicuously
middle class and urban, we got more attention than needed. A lot of people,
women and men, wanted selfies and shook hands but were not intrusive. By
the third day, we also became a familiar sight at the lunch and dinner
camps. People at lunch camp were curious to know why we joined and wanted
our impressions of the Yatra and the Congress Party, when they got to know
that two of us did not belong to the party.

As we walked we met friends and acquaintances who were in the Yatra from
the Congress party who in turn introduced us to their party colleagues, big
and small. The bigger leaders were delighted to see ‘people like us’
walking and said they needed our support. The smaller leaders, from NSUI,
PCCs, Mahila Congress as well as contested candidates, Seva Dal activists
shared their concerns about the Yatra and the party. They were delighted
that their leader finally came down from Delhi to walk, they said it has
rejuvenated the party that almost got wiped out in Andhra Pradesh. They
spoke of the need for the AICC to connect more organically to the local
leadership, to front the local leaders in the Yatra when it went through
their constituencies. They were not happy about the last minute information
about the Yatra. They shared the need for the PCC president to be
proactive. They spoke of their dedication to the party despite its
electoral non-existence. They spoke of the need for active direction of the
leadership, at the state and national level, of more access to RG. They had
come down from far off Visakhapatnam, Guntur, Prakasam districts as well as
Nellore and Tirupathi to mobilise people and get the petitions written and
were eager to get the attention of RG. They expressed unhappiness about the
route, the stringent security ring, the Yatra’s inattention to the
organisational issues and electoral dynamics. While they were upbeat about
the Yatra, wanted a lot more and were unsure about its followup. From the
AICC side, we heard that the local PCC did not take any interest in the
Yatra. We noticed that the posters and ‘flexis’ were in English enroute the
remotest part of Andhra Pradesh, sometimes in Kannada too.

While we did want to meet RG we also wondered what we would talk to him
about as none of us came with a specific task in mind and were mostly
exhausted from walking in the harsh sun. We heard him respond to the press
people, explaining how Congress is different from the BJP and what the
Yatra has meant to him. He said that the core philosophy of the BJP was
upholding patriarchy, caste dominance and communal divide and the Congress
party stood against all this. The Yatra was to take this philosophy to all
corners of the country. He conveyed the same message in the two street
corner meetings that we attended. But when we tried to speak to the people
enroute the Yatra they all believed it was a Congress party Yatra and were
glad that the party of the Indiramma is back. The message against hate, we
thought, was not getting conveyed, either due to the lack of groundwork by
the local party, lack of coordination between the top rung and the bottom
rung or the unpreparedness of the local party wing to carry the message. We
decided that, if we got an opportunity, we would have to convey this gap in
messaging to him.

On the third day of the Yatra, when two of us met Mr. Jairam Ramesh, he
inquired if we had met RG and after ensuring that we had walked, instructed
someone that we be made to meet him. We then were interviewed by a member
of the core organising team of the Yatra about what we do and what we
wanted to talk about. During the afternoon walk we were let into the ring
of security and told that we needed to leave in two minutes. We introduced
ourselves in the midst of loud songs, drums and hundreds of people cheering
on both sides of the road and proceeded to talk about what we were
expecting the Congress party to do for women.

When my turn came, I spoke about why I joined the Yatra despite being a
critic of the Congress party throughout my life, said that as a women’s
rights activist I wanted the Yatra to succeed in conveying this message
against misogyny but that this message needed to be conveyed more
convincingly and effectively. This set off an engaging conversation that
lasted nearly twenty minutes, to the chagrin of the organisers. He asked us
what the core philosophy of the current regime is and before we could
respond, he said, it wasn’t caste domination or communal hatred but
misogyny. It was male dominance that formed the basis for the two other
planks of the BJP. Then we talked of the effective ways to fight this and
the role of the State and government in changing the culture of misogyny.
He drew attention to the contending religious traditions of the country,
one that endorsed and reinforced misogyny and the other, especially
traditions like Buddhism, that provided space for challenging misogyny. We
pointed to social democratic policies of the UPA and emphasised the need
for a clear ideological and political push against the culture of misogyny
in the country. We said that women needed welfare and social security
policies that would give them relative autonomy from the toxic communities
and families. He listened keenly and asked what we thought were the most
important measures. To our list of compulsory education till 10th standard,
social security, he added women’s reservations in the parliament. Not only
in the panchayats but they are necessary in the parliament too. While we
talked of how the Indian state’s support for women’s battles in the
families and communities has not been consistent, he provocatively argued
that the modern state is a Judeo-Christian idea and has not taken root in
the Indian soil. This led to the conversation about the need to root the
Indian Constitution’s notion of equality more deeply in societal culture
and how we could do this, especially at the current juncture. He agreed
with the need to have a clear and persistent push towards equality for
women by the Indian State and the government. We pointed to the Yatra and
said that there were hardly any women and he wanted to know whether we
could suggest any ways of increasing the presence of women in this ‘rough
space’. We said that a designated time for women to walk with him would
enable more women to join. He promptly called his core organising team
member and suggested to them to think about this idea. By this time it was
already fifteen minutes and the organisers were impatient as others were
waiting in queue. He nevertheless continued the conversation, this time
wanting to know my most radical idea about changing the current situation
of women. I said women required the ability to stay unmarried as much as
they wanted. Wasn’t I married, was it an arranged marriage that I did not
like? I said I was referring to the creation of conditions in which women
could stay unmarried and independent so that they would and could do what
they were capable of and wanted to do. He wanted to know who inspired me to
become what I am and I said it was the University of Hyderabad and the
ideas that I got exposed to that made me what I am. That public
universities are extremely important and need to be guarded. He responded
saying that it was precisely the reason that they were under attack.

In the twenty odd minutes of the walking conversation in the midst of
cotton farmers throwing themselves into the security ring, organisers
breathing down our neck and deafening sloganeering, we came away with a
feeling that he was deeply committed to the values of equality, diversity,
constitutionalism and modernity while being well informed about how they
challenged major received philosophical traditions of the Indian
subcontinent. The Yatra, for him, is a journey to learn but also to enable
a re-turn to these values among the populace. It was more than an electoral
and party building exercise. I came away feeling that this is the kind of
ideological clarity that a person leading this country requires at this

Will he be able to succeed in convincing the country’s populace that he can
lead the country is the million dollar question that has no easy answers.
As the leader of the most important national party, he is expected to lead
the party in elections and build it into an efficient organisation with
effective leadership at multiple levels. His own familial legacy and his
past mistakes, failures and disappointments as the party president continue
to haunt him as the encrusted middle class that has got used to eulogising
success and having contempt for any sort of failure does not easily forgive.

The Yatra definitely shows the enduring charisma of the Gandhis especially
Rahul Gandhi and if goes unhindered, would demonstrate his stamina and
perseverance. Would the Congress party rebuild itself around the
re-discovered charisma of Rahul Gandhi? The Yatra advocates broad social
democratic ideas that the UPA I advocated and addresses the concerns of
large sections of the economically and socially marginalised peoples. Can
the Congress party convert this into a credible electoral agenda to
challenge the current regime that has fine tuned itself into an efficient
electoral machine?

However, as a Yatri who walked 50 kms in the remote part of AP, in
sweltering heat, I came away with hope, which as Rebecca Solnit argues is
neither despair nor optimism, “when you take on hope, you take on its
opposites and opponents: despair, defeatism, cynicism and pessimism. And, I
would argue, optimism. What all these enemies of hope have in common is
confidence about what is going to happen, a false certainty that excuses
inaction. Whether you feel assured that everything is going to hell or will
all turn out fine, you are not impelled to act. All these postures
undermine participation in political life in ordinary times.. They are
generally both wrong in their analysis and damaging in their consequences”.

The hope that I have is the accumulated memory of several struggles, recent
and far removed, changes that resulted due to these struggles, small and
big and the massive effort that is going into holding this Yatra. The
charisma and the message of the walking leader, the ability to pull off
such a Yatra, the reaching out to the numerous struggling groups, civil
society organisations and the local politicians perhaps would create
conditions for the rejuvenation of the Congress party that can articulate a
political vision that aligns with the social democratic, pluralist visions
that the Indian society is throwing up through its multiple movements.

*The author is a feminist from Hyderabad and a Senior Fellow at and
Coordinator of Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies.

[Here're the two immediately preceding posts in this series, in reverse
chronological order.
I. <https://groups.google.com/g/greenyouth/c/c2pu1Ek3nAc>.
II. <https://groups.google.com/g/greenyouth/c/A0vl4rxkU74>.

And two video clips:
1. Last day in Karnataka:  <
2. Crossing the Tungabhadra River; <
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