When I wanted to run in the Mumbai Marathon a few years ago, it was pretty much impossible to run simply because you wanted to run. Instead, runners had to register through one NGO or another, and use the Marathon to raise funds for it. That is, run for a cause. Not merely for yourself. To be honest, it never quite made sense to me. I believe the Marathon organisers should welcome both kinds of runners.

Joining the Congress party’s 3,500-km Kanyakumari-to -Jammu and Kashmir Bharat Jodo Yatra – which a few of us did in Karnataka’s Tumkur district on October 9 and October 10 – carried faint echoes of that experience. Our little group could simply turn up and walk. Or we could see this as a chance to tell a political party about our concerns relating to certain challenges in our country: not quite walking for a cause, but close.

We chose the latter. Unlike at the Marathon, we had the choice.

In our group were four public health professionals, a journalist and me. The public health folks prepared a short brief on issues like malnutrition and the right to health care. They planned to speak to Congress leaders about this during the Yatra. That actually happened, as you can read in Ramani Atkuri’s article here.

The journalist and I, though, were the ones without a cause. Which was fine with us. We wanted to walk and observe, that’s all. So here’s some of that. In particular, something about logistics.

Far and fast

To start, how were we to join the Yatra? There’s a published schedule, but it tends to change slightly every day. When we first chose October 9 and October 10 as our dates, the event website told us that the Yatra would start from Turuvakere on the morning of October 9 and walk some 40 km to Gubbi. The next day, it would trek on to Sira, another 55 km.

These distances were daunting, but there were other obstacles to overcome even before walking those stretches. How would we reach Turuvakere by 6.30 am? Where would we spend the night? Ideally, we’d have liked to stay with the Yatra, but they had no arrangements for bandwagon-hoppers like us. So if not in Gubbi, where? And how would we get there? And again, how would we get back to Gubbi by 6.30 am the next morning?

Taking everything into account, we worked out this plan. Stay in Tumkur. Hire a minibus to drop us at Turuvakere (65 km), overtake the Yatra and wait for us at Gubbi. Return to Tumkur for the night (20 km). Have it drop us back to Gubbi next morning and wait at Sira. Return to Tumkur (50 km).

But then the Yatra changed its schedule. On October 8, we got the schedule for the next day: 6.30 am start at Kibbanahalli Cross, or KB Cross, as it’s popularly known (50 km from Tumkur), end at Ankanabavi (23 km walk). Changed, but still doable with Tumkur as a base. So we woke at 4.30 am on October 9 and were on the road to KB Cross by 5 am.

Participants in the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Credit: Dilip D'Souza

The Yatra organisers suggested that the best place to walk would be 100 m or so in front of Rahul Gandhi. That would mean keeping his pace or better. If we didn’t think that was possible, the next best would be a similar distance behind. Either way, we would avoid being shoved around by crowds. We chose the front. That meant we had to get ahead of the Yatra at KB Cross and station ourselves somewhere, waiting for it to catch up.

Which we did. And we waited. At 6.40 am, a small posse of yatris showed up, carrying a flag, waving their fists and chanting slogans. We let them pass. Another group, a little larger. We let them pass too. Suddenly, it was upon us – a flood of men and women flowing down the road, kept in some apparent order by a large number of cops, some of whom held on to the long rope that gives Rahul Gandhi safe space to walk. We tried to insinuate ourselves into the flood – “stay ahead, stay ahead!” was our mantra – but before we knew it we were floundering along on the edge, pushed this way and that by the crowd.

Without fully comprehending how it came to be, the journalist and I found ourselves plodding along far behind our colleagues and the bulk of the other walkers, sharing the road not with walkers so much as a mess of honking, slow-moving vehicles.

Not the Yatra we had in mind.

Over the next half-hour, I struggled through the crowds – ecstatic young men mostly, shouting “Rahul bhaiyya!” and “Photo please!” as they ran for spells – to reach the front of the procession. That’s when it struck me: the best spot to walk was just behind two press vehicles. They were jampacked with reporters filming the Yatra, so they had to both keep pace with the yatris and stay in front. Perfect.

But all this planning only took us so far. Late that evening, still about 3 km-4 km short of the evening halt at Ankanabavi, one of our group found his shoes falling apart. So we stopped for the day. But our minibus was at Ankanabavi, and between us and that small metropolis was the whole Yatra. For the minibus to reach us, we had to wait where we were – a roadside tea shop – until the Yatra and all the traffic piled up behind it rolled past Ankanabavi.

Which would have been all right, except that the tea shop ran out of milk after the first round of tiny cuppas. “Too many customers!” said the woman running it. She didn’t seem unhappy.

More logistical issues the next morning. The organisers offered to take us into the cordon to meet Rahul Gandhi. For which, they sent us a Google Maps pin locator for where they wanted us to wait: an Indane gas dealership several kilometres ahead of that day’s kick-off point. This meant we had to get ahead of the Yatra at the start and be sure we were still ahead at the Indane spot. This also meant a 4 am wake-up, because of course the day’s kick-off point was nearly 35 km ahead of the previous day’s KB Cross start. And since we were not allowed bags inside the cordon, those had to stay in our minibus.

It was touch-and-go, but we were in place on time at Indane. Bag-free and ready.

A participant in the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Credit: Dilip D'Souza

Except that when the Yatra got there, the previous group walking with Rahul Gandhi was still with him. So we fell in, once more, in step with the press trucks. About an hour later, someone beckoned to us and we entered the cordon. “No bags!” he said, pointing to the purple strap across my chest – the instruction we had already been given. My strap, though, belonged not to a bag but to my camera. “OK,” he said, “but you can’t take any photographs.”

I nodded as he shepherded us to the edge of the cordon, striding single-file alongside the line of rope-wielding constables for several more minutes. Then, to Gandhi’s side.

All of which is what it took, to walk and talk with him for the next 20 minutes. And that’s just for the few of us. The Yatra’s logistical challenges are, need I say it, far wider and more intricate than this much.

Consider how organisers dealt with just two of them.

Buntings and flags for the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Credit: Dilip D'Souza

Take the posters and bunting that lined the route: Ambedkar, Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Bose and several other more contemporary Congresswallahs. When we were waiting, tea-deprived, short of Ankanabavi, we saw a few young men uprooting posters and piling them on a little truck. These were Tamil-speakers, hired in Kanyakumari to travel with the Yatra all the way to Kashmir. Their job: first, journey ahead of the Yatra, erecting posters on the route to the next break point. Second, allow the Yatra to trundle past. Third, follow it, picking up the posters. Repeat. Every single day, repeat.

Backbreaking work, but the men did a fine job. Driving north from KB Cross early on our second day, cruising the same route that we had trudged along only hours before, it was as if nothing had happened there only hours before. Not a single poster was left. “There are about 250 of us,” the man had told us, “and they pay us Rs 1000 each per day.”

Take toilets. It’s one thing to organise portable toilet facilities for the hundreds of Yatris and add-ons like me. It’s another thing altogether to maintain a certain degree of cleanliness in those toilets, enough said. I’ve been at plenty of public gatherings where it takes courage and the ability to stop breathing for a spell, to even step into their toilets. What did the Yatra have in store for those of us seeking to relieve ourselves?

At one of the mid-day halts, I walked up to the portable toilet: a large truck carrying a large container, steps at the back. Already holding my breath, I climbed the stairs – into immediate wonder.

It was spotless. It was largely dry. It was odour-less. There were two large Parryware sinks set on a granite countertop, fitted with stylish Jaquar taps. The commodes and urinals were Parryware too, again spotless. There were bottles of handwash, and a sanitiser in the corner. The cherry on top? A small vase on the counter, with, I could hardly believe it, flowers.

I mean, this was a scene, no exaggeration, out of some high-class hotel.

So: by now, you’ve read plenty about the progress of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, about Rahul Gandhi’s meetings with all kinds of groups, about the surging crowds, about the brisk pace the Yatra keeps up, day after day. All that says something – about the Congress, our politics, the challenges our country faces and more.

But spare a thought, too, for everything that goes on behind the scenes, logistically, to keep this Yatra on the road, to have it connect with people along the way. Spare a thought for all that – for it says something too.

Dilip D’Souza’s most recent book is The Deoliwallahs, co-authored with Joy Ma.