All the roads in Ballari had been barricaded from the morning on Saturday, the day Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra entered the city. Yet, all roads were leading to the Municipal Ground at Ballari as people poured into the public meeting that Gandhi addressed later in the afternoon.

Streams of people, sombre-looking women and men, playful children, and enthusiastic youth, in small groups and larger processions, which were often accompanied by drummers, chanting “jodo jodo, Bharat Jodo”, unite, unite India, flowed down the streets of the city.

Three of us from Bengaluru had decided to join one of the last laps of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Karnataka for half a day. We believe it is a historic event in Indian politics and has the potential to change the Congress’s fortunes. For us, joining the Yatra was both an act of solidarity and an opportunity to feel the mood of the people.

Congress workers in Ballari on October 15. Credit: PTI.

We couldn’t find a hotel room in Ballari so we had to stay in Hospete, about 60 km east. But as we drove towards Ballari early on Saturday, we were stopped by the police at the barricades that had been erected on the main road leading to the city. Only vehicles with VIP passes were allowed into the city, they told us. There were many vehicles carrying Congress workers from neighbouring areas and all of us were asked to take the road to the starting point of the Yatra for that day.

We decided to try to find an alternative route into the city. An auto driver helped us find our way to the bus stand parking and then, ferried us towards the route of the Yatra.

Even though it was only 7.30 am and the Yatra was still a couple of kilometres away, there were people waiting on both sides of the road to cheer the Yatra, many carrying flags, placards, and banners and some carrying flowers to shower on the Yatra. There was anticipation and excitement in the air. True to the message of the Yatra, people of different castes, religions, and classes stood shoulder to shoulder and patiently waited.

Credit: Abhilash Prabhakaran.

There was indeed an organic charm to the whole thing, and the movement was noticeably devoid of any traces of aggression, which has become the hallmark of political movements these days. The message was against hate and was about love and unity – and a cursory look at the crowd and the Yatra would tell you that unity isn’t used as a byword for uniformity.

As the Yatra made its way through the streets of Ballari city, we could see happy, cheerful faces everywhere. Bystanders told us they were doing their bit to help redeem this country by joining the Yatra – a sentiment that we shared and inspired us to take the more than 700-km round trip to be part of it.

One thing the huge success of the Yatra so far seems to underline is that Rahul Gandhi still enjoys the trust of people who want to save India from the clutches of hate. No other leader could have pulled off something of this scale without the support of a cadre-based organisation.

A telling example of Gandhi’s popularity was when everyone in the restaurant in which we were having lunch, including the women staff, cleaning staff, waiters, and diners, ran to the main road when the “jodo jodo Bharat jodo” chant was heard. Disappointment was writ large on their faces when they realised that it was just another procession making its way towards the meeting venue and not one led by Rahul Gandhi.

As we walked around Ballari, we could see groups of people on almost all roads and by-lanes leading to the meeting venue. The venue under the huge shamiana that seemed to have seating arrangements for a hundred thousand started filling up by noon. There was a festive mood, a spirit that felt familial and spiritual more than masculine or aggressive.

Credit: Abhilash Prabhakaran.

The eight hours we spent Ballari were an exhilarating experience. Rahul Gandhi has definitely helped galvanise the Congress in at least two of the states – Kerala and Karnataka – he has so far covered as part of the Yatra.

The tremendous support the Yatra has got in Karnataka will make the turncoats who jumped ship from the Congress in 2019 jittery and clearly indicates that even though many leaders have deserted the party, voters haven’t. It is a shot in the arm for Congress in Karnataka that goes to polls in less than six months.

If the local leadership retains this momentum for the next few months, state Congress chief DK Shivakumar’s claim of being able to win 150 seats looks quite realistic. There seems to be a groundswell in favour of Congress and that comes from both social and economic factors.

DK Shivakumar, Rahul Gandhi and former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah. Credit: PTI.

The mainstream media, unfortunately, has been playing down the Yatra. Some believe that the section of the media that supports the government is hoping that a lack of coverage could slow down the momentum and prevent it from growing further.

But the people in the media would do well to remember that they cannot ignore what is happening on the ground for long. Rahul Gandhi is going to the people directly, and you cannot fool people who see it for themselves.

Abhilash Prabhakaran is a former journalist who now works as a communication professional.

Also read:

What I saw behind the scenes at the Bharat Jodo Yatra: a poster relay, pleas for photos – and a vase

Protesting shrinking freedoms, walking for hope: What I saw on the Bharat Jodo Yatra