A long walk of people is a political act of perseverance. It renounces the lure of instant gratification and advocates caution over hurried conclusions. It seeks consensus through conversations instead of demanding make-believe acceptance through oratory and theatrics.

When my two friends and I joined the Bharat Jodo Yatra on October 15 as it was on its way from Halakundi village to Ballari in Karnataka, we were baffled for a moment about the act of “joining”. How would one become part of something that was structurally fluid?

It was an important day, marking the first 1,000 km of the long journey. Ballari, a couple of kilometres away, was in a festive mood. In the yatra led by Rahul Gandhi were a band of drummers, core yatris in distinctive white attire who will walk the entire 3,750-km route from Kanyakumari to Srinagar and thousands of others who are doing shorter stretches, carrying banners, singing songs and chanting slogans.

Hundreds of people stepped in and out of the yatra at will so it was hard to tell the yatris from the supporters and spectators. Nor could one tell where the tail end of the yatra was. It was not a march with neat rows of participants in synchronised movement wearing identical political insignia.

There was no system to register for the yatra for record one’s presence. Anyone could walk along, walk within or walk behind – all would count for participation, as we realised.

This unregimented nature of the Bharat Jodo Yatra is also its most defining. If one is to walk for the rising concern about the country’s deteriorating divisions, one has to walk in step with others, celebrating heterogeneity.

As Kanhaiya Kumar former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president and Congress member, who is doing the entire march remarked when we walked with him briefly, “How else will you meet and interact with so many people from across the country with an open mind?” Asked if the Yatra would bring about substantial change, he said, “Things are changing anyway, mostly for the worse. We will have to try to make the changes better for everyone.”

Credit: Abhilash Prabhakaran.

In contrast to the command-and-control mobilisation deployed by right-wing parties, the Bharat Jodo Yatra seemed to be devoid of any display of arrogance or authoritarian hubris.

We saw a former Union minister walking unassumingly, while state Congress leaders blended with others in the crowd. Residents of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan spoke animatedly to those from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, everyone managing their language barriers with smiles and gestures.

Despite being at the receiving end of a dedicated troll army through the years and targeted with abuse like few other political leaders before, Gandhi walked with poise. Perhaps he understands that the larger battle is to safeguard truth from the falsehoods that are eroding the pillars of Indian democracy.

In that sense, the Bharat Jodo Yatra is a collective vigil to protect and uphold the truth above all else.

“It is relatively easier to deal with the waste in the physical world compared to the amount of garbage that is being fed into the space between the ears of people everyday,” observed Savita Hiremat, an independent journalist and author of Endlessly Green: Solid Waste Management for Everyone.

Like us, she too had joined the Yatra for a day accompanying her sister Shailaja Hiremat, a Kannada poet, who was walking the entire Karnataka stretch that began from Gundalpet. Savita, with no strong party affiliation, was proud to be associated with the Yatra for its implications for a cleaner political environment and was excited about the opportunity she had to walk alongside Rahul Gandhi earlier in the day.

We met a few Muslim clergy members in Ballari, who spoke passionately about the long history of religious harmony in the region and how there had been unsuccessful attempts recently to disturb it. “Rahul Gandhi’s presence and the Bharat Jodo Yatra have evoked a great deal of optimism in people and it is slowly bubbling up to something big,” said Syed Olibasha.

Shinaj Shajahan from Kerala, who has worked in West Asia for over a decade, has been a Congress sympathiser but with no active involvement with the party. He took 40 days of leave to travel with the Yatra.

Rahul Gandhi with party supporters in Ballari on October 15. Credit: PTI.

Too early to tell?

It remains unclear whether the spirit of the yatra will resonate far enough to reach those with no pre-disposition towards the Congress. In Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, social workers, writers and academics without any pro-Congress leanings joined the yatra, but Kerala stuck to its known political loyalties with the yatra receiving a rousing reception mainly mobilised by party workers.

The larger question – tinted with expectation or anxiety, depending on which side of the political spectrum one occupies – is will the Congress see a resurgence?

The response to the first leg of the yatra has been tremendous.

The public meeting in Ballari in the afternoon of October 15 to celebrate the 1,000-km milestone of the yatra drew a phenomenal crowd. Braving barricades on the roads and a slushy ground, over 1.5 lakh participants showed up. More than the numbers, the energy of the crowd, their engagement and being there as they were, many in their work attire, made a strong political statement.

Even so, extrapolating these early signals to infer any immediate change in the nationwide fortunes of the Congress would be premature.

Rahul Rajbhar, a state secretary of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee, was nuanced in his expectation. “To regain the trust of Dalits and OBCs [other backward classes] who have been swayed by promises of upward mobility and social status within the Hindu fold, a lot of work needs to be done,” said Rajbhar. “Respect should substitute inducement as the basis of engagement.”

Rajbhar said that with Priyanka Gandhi’s leadership, there is momentum that may reflect in the next Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections. “And it will take another few years before Congress reclaims its lost space, but it is going to happen,” he said.

Upendar Bhardwaj, a Seva Dal volunteer from Rajasthan, also voiced cautious optimism about the party’s election prospects in his state.

The Congress’s hope for a revival from any movement it spearheads is legitimate, but the Bharat Jodo Yatra appears to be designed differently, not to address the party’s immediate political exigency. It seems to stem from the realisation that uniting the country is not a short-term effort that can be achieved through party politics.

Changing public discourse

A long walk is a political act of perseverance. It renounces the lure of instant gratification and advocates caution over hurried conclusions. It seeks consensus through conversations instead of demanding make-believe acceptance through oratory and theatrics. It believes in sanity over frenzy. It offers true mental nourishment. There are signs that it will work eventually.

For instance, the police personnel in Ballari managing traffic diversions and barricades ,who were expected to be on the side of the government, used no force or hostility and even helped those wanting to reach the route of the Yatra.

We ourselves had never walked under a Congress flag. But we are proud that we did, despite still being at a distance from the party. But we know that it is a healthy distance that makes democracy meaningful, which is exactly what the Bharat Jodo Yatra seeks to accomplish.

Sajan PK began his career covering the 1996 general elections for Doordarshan and, after short stints in print and online journalism, switched to corporate communications.

Also read:

Groundswell of support, a happy energy: Eight hours with the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Ballari

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