In Kanyakumari, where the Bharat Jodo Yatra got under way, the first language of the people is Tamil. Many of us from India’s Hindi belt were all at sea—even asking for a cup of tea was a challenge. The locals were warm and hospitable, but had neither Hindi nor English. Negotiating that language barrier was a good way to remind ourselves why we (they?) were on the road.
That aside, the food made up for the inconvenience. We discovered that even simple street food was very different from our idea of ‘South Indian’ in the north. I was overwhelmed by those big thali meals and the mildly flavoured curries when I was expecting a chilli-hot assault—it was nothing of the sort.
Luckily the six-day Onam festival was still on when we entered the state. Another fellow traveller from a Hindi-speaking state joked that he could breathe again—in Kerala, it did somehow seem easy to forget that you were Hindu or Muslim.
Maybe it was the free spirit in which Onam was being celebrated: Muslims and Christians were not just in token attendance, they were performing, participating. There were many women in burqas and they didn’t look out of place.
In his brief speech on reaching Thiruvananthapuram, Rahul Gandhi said something similar. Kerala, he said, was an oasis that produced the best doctors, nurses, teachers and administrators because people lived in harmony. The country needed to learn from this ‘Kerala Model’, he said.
Every ‘Bharat Yatri’ is being allowed to walk with Rahul Gandhi for short distances. They’ve also been issued a friendly warning: do not bad-mouth anyone; do not crib or complain; do not seek to promote yourself. Talk to him about issues of public concern in your state and maybe possible solutions, the Yatris have been advised.
The first 15 days will be hard, veteran padayatri Digvijaya Singh warned fellow travellers in Kanyakumari. For people not used to walking every day, it will be painful; the temptation to drop out will be high. But after the first fortnight or so, he assured them, it will be a breeze. He shared his experience of the Narmada Yatra, and let them in on a little secret: if you walk in bathroom slippers, you won’t get blisters.
Rahul Gandhi walks fast, and many Bharat Yatris struggle to keep up. When we catch up with Priya Grewal and Pinkie Singh, at the first stop one morning, they are both lying on the floor exhausted.
“Too tired to talk?”
“Of course not,” they perk up, struggling to rise. It is an effort and they sheepishly admit their legs are giving way.
“Perhaps Rahul walks too fast?”
Relief comes from unexpected quarters. Every other person wants a selfie with Rahul. He is obliging, and is forced to stop; it slows him down a bit. Many invite him into their homes for some tea—for Priya, Pinkie and many other fellow Yatris, struggling a bit to keep up, that is welcome relief.
Down the Yatra route, where it hasn’t yet reached, people are waiting to see or join the Yatris. Rahul, we’re told, likes to walk fast partly because he does not want to keep people waiting. Also covering 10-12 km in the morning allows Yatris time to rest when the day gets warmer. For Rahul and other senior leaders, though, there is little respite—they are using these breaks to meet local people, local influencers, party workers…
The heat and humidity are a challenge, but the Yatra organisers knew it would be— so they prepared. Dieticians have been consulted to prescribe a recommended calorific intake for Yatris—on the sixth day, for instance, they were served chicken and dry fruits. Doctors are in attendance and they monitor the health of participants; a mobile clinic is at hand; Seva Dal volunteers are in attendance… the planning seems impressive in its details.
They know there’ll be attempts to disrupt and discredit the Yatra. The smallest lapse, the tiniest detail that offers any bad-press purchase will be amplified by lapdog media, at the behest of the ruling party. Nobody here is surprised that Rahul Gandhi’s T-shirt is deemed a worthy topic for prime time TV discussions—it takes a combative reminder, about a certain suit Narendra Modi wore, for them to back off. More proof of similar trolling came from TV actress-turned-politician Smriti Irani’s charge that Rahul had “failed to visit” the Rock Memorial at Kanyakumari to pay homage to Vivekananda. Expect worse when the Yatra enters BJP-ruled Karnataka on October 1.
Are Congress leaders perhaps wondering if they should have embarked on this Yatra earlier? It’s hard to tell, but barely a week into the 3,570 km long march, the public response is way beyond their expectations.
The regional newspapers and TV channels are awash with coverage of the Yatra, so much so that even hostile media in Delhi has found it hard to black it out. In interactions with regional media, Rahul comes across as a thoughtful and empathetic leader, who is willing to listen to people—an antithesis of the half-hearted politician he is made out to be by mainstream media. The ease with which he is connecting with people, children, youth and senior citizens alike, is a talking point. The unreserved physical warmth he exudes for perfect strangers—those images do not lie— are not for the cameras.
On the evidence of the first week, the Congress should feel happy they undertook the Yatra. Could they, should they have done it sooner? Maybe. But that notwithstanding, no amount of advertising could have achieved what the Yatra is apparently doing.
The 117 Bharat Yatris, picked from 50,000 applicants, also confess they had a different image of Rahul Gandhi before the Yatra. His simplicity and warmth, they say, are infectious. He is up by 5.30 a.m., eats whatever is served, and is quickly ready for the road again. He puts you at ease, they excitedly tell family members on the phone. “If you address him as Rahulji, he’ll tell you he prefers simply ‘Rahul’,” one slightly breathless Yatri is overheard telling folks back home.
(Deepak Aseem is an Indore-based journalist who is covering the Yatra. Translated from Hindi)