Why ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ Has Captured the Popular Imagination

The Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY) from Kanyakumari to Kashmir is a remarkable attempt to reimagine India’s politics through sustained public action. The Congress party has finally put its feet on the ground. It has mounted an ambitious mass contact programme reminiscent of Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March in 1930 – a direct action campaign of tax resistance and nonviolent protests – which ultimately led to the call for civil disobedience to challenge colonial rule. The BJY reminds us of some of those iconic campaigns.

The BJY is not just a routine padayatra. It is set against a political context dominated by sharp divisions, growing hate and rising inequalities. In the last few years, Indian politics has seen dramatic shifts bringing the majoritarian ideas of the Hindu Right to the forefront. Following its massive mandate in 2019, the government acted swiftly on its Hindu nationalist vision. Legislations such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the revocation of Article 370, and the Supreme Court ruling in favour of the Hindu litigants in the Ayodhya dispute pleased its core constituency and beyond. The control of democratic institutions – from the media to educational institutions to the judiciary – has ensured a radical shift in public discourse. Meanwhile, free speech and dissent have been curtailed and declared anti-national.

Also read: Here’s Why the Jodo-Jodo Gang and Its Exertions Matter

An important wedge in a hyper-nationalist narrative

Against this backdrop, the BJY has raised three big issues – economic inequality, social polarisation, and authoritarian politics. These issues have been raised every day during Rahul Gandhi’s interactions while walking, in his press conferences, in meetings with special collectives of people, in speeches, and in rallies.

All these events and issues are connected in one respect – in their bid to uphold fraternity and unite a divided country and economy, where unemployment and inflation are high, even as the government has been high on promises and low on delivery. This has generated a substantive critique of the governance record of the regime and its economic, social, and political policies.

At the same time, it has refurbished the Congress’s credentials as a party of national unity and social cohesion upholding the values of pluralism, the welfare of the masses and their constitutionally granted rights as significant aspects of public discourse that are worth fighting for. This marks an important wedge in a hyper-nationalist narrative in vogue today.

Over the long march, Rahul Gandhi has emerged as a staunch opponent of the Hindu Right, unflinching in his critique of its divisive politics. Indeed, the main achievement of the yatra is its head-on challenge to the ideological hegemony of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bhartiya Janata Party (RSS-BJP).

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi waves at supporters during the Bharat Jodo Yatra, in Kota, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. Photo: PTI

Rahul Gandhi famously said that “nafrat ke bazaar mein, mai mohabbat ki dukan kholne nikla hoon.” This is a simple but powerful message to counter the muscular rhetoric of hate and exclusion. This message sets it apart from previous padayatras. It signals an attempt to recapture a sense of collective identity amid plurality.

Also read: Can Bharat Jodo Yatra Give a New Lease of Life to Rahul Gandhi?

What has the yatra shown so far?

Padayatras in India, an amalgamation of pilgrimage and penance, invariably leave an impact on the popular mind. There is something positive and proactive about the yatra that appeals to people. The sea of people walking with the yatris is evidence of that. It has received an overwhelming public response in all the states it has traversed, including the Hindi heartland.

The logistical challenge of covering 3,500 kilometres in 12 states in some 150 days cannot be realised without an organisational machinery planning and executing it. While the BJY is supported by civil society, which is important in widening its social reach, it is noteworthy that the crowds thronging the yatra have been mobilised by Congress. This is because, unlike the farmers’ movement or the anti-CAA protests, this is the first party-based mass mobilisation against communal majoritarianism. In this respect, the BJY has succeeded as both political protest and mobilisation, and has, even if partially, offered a national counterpoint to the politics of the current regime.

From the outset, it was clear that this was a political yatra and not an election yatra. It has tried to frame a new charter for public action that is disassociated from immediate electoral calculations. Walking together with people and taking them along is important in itself, particularly so in times of deep economic and social discontent. And by walking with the people, BJY serves as a reminder of what public action can achieve for its own sake. It has captured the popular imagination because the leader is walking among his people outside of elections, he is speaking to them as citizens, not voters.

Also read: The Agenda and Outcome of the Bharat Jodo Yatra Still Remain Hazy

“Nobody has come to us on foot like this, and we like it,” one columnist reported from the yatra. This redefines the conventional structure of politics by laying emphasis on a direct party-people connect which can mobilise the vast numbers of people who are not fully committed to Hindu nationalism, in fact, feel vulnerable when confronted with the manufactured divisiveness perpetuated by its adherents.

Above all, the yatra has created political space for the opposition in what the Congress describes as the battle of ideologies. It has helped the opposition to answer the one question that has dominated political discourse since the spectacular rise of the BJP in 2014: Where’s the Opposition? And rightly so, as the opposition parties, especially the Congress, were not involved in any sustained protests or mobilisation on the ground against the actions of the government.

Yatra has shown that the opposition is in action, with the Congress leading the charge. The party is at long last doing something which is working. This has energised both Rahul Gandhi and the party workers. Throughout the yatra, Congress has been releasing videos of his interactions with groups of leaders from various sectors of society, and with members of his own party with a view to highlight the dynamic nature of internal discussions and accessibility to the leader.

Significantly, despite negligible mainstream media coverage and non-stop attacks and trolling, the yatra has revived Rahul Gandhi’s image as a serious, empathetic, and accessible leader. People can see the real Rahul Gandhi, not the caricature and sendup created deliberately by his critics and television news and social media.

Lastly, will it gain enough traction to register a difference inside the polling booth? This is an important question because ultimately politics of resistance in a democratic system cannot remain indifferent to electoral outcomes, and for political parties to remain relevant, they need to win elections. Nevertheless, a successful yatra is no guarantee of electoral success. Elections are and will be influenced by multiple, ever-changing factors. Unfortunately, our country has been steeped in a narrative prioritising and legitimising the formal aspects of democracy.

Fuelled by corporate media, India’s democratic quotient has been reduced to the management of elections. Given the ceaseless election mania where battle readiness has become the keyword in public discourse, the yardstick to judge a political leader’s success is only its election-winning capacity, regardless of how elections are won or lost. While electoral success cannot be the sole criterion for judging the success of the yatra, this doesn’t mean the yatra cannot move the needle. Indeed, the widespread public response to the BJY shows that no ideological hegemony, including political Hinduism, can enjoy permanence.

After a long time, the ruling party is not setting the narrative, it is reacting to Congress. All its attempts to belittle and trivialise the yatra have largely failed. It is not entirely a coincidence that within the first few weeks of the yatra, some right-wing leaders began to articulate concerns about unemployment, poverty, and inequality – the issues that have been raised during this yatra.

And in the last weeks of the yatra, a few of the mahants of Ayodhya have expressed support for it too. The BJY is clearly a good way to widen the opposition’s reach among the masses. It has the potential of altering the national mood too. It is the necessary first step in building the politics of change. However, translating discontent into outcomes requires an organisation on the ground. While a lot will depend on changes within the party, translating the moral and ideological critique into sustainable politics is the next task at hand.

Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Distinguished Professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

Featured image: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during Bharat Jodo Yatra. Photo: Facebook/Rahul Gandhi

This article was first published on The Wire.