Bharat Jodo Yatra

Dilip D'Souza

One day on the Bharat Jodo Yatra, we found ourselves with a group of people we had met while we walked. This was in the afternoon break between the two sessions of brisk walking. We were sitting on chairs outside two enormous tents. One had dozens t a simple lunch, served to them on bright green banana leaves. of cots on which the Yatra's yatris were resting. The other had long tables at which people sat to eat.

Finished with lunch, our new friends were discussing why h his reasons right there and then, musing: "You know, I've been anti-Congress all my life! So they had joined the Yatra. Mohan, a squat man with a greying beard, seemed to be working through why am I here at all?" He stopped to collect his thoughts. "But it's just that now there's this t what he meant. He went on: "So I want to defeat that and save democracy." assault on Indian democracy," he said. Several people nodded. Nobody needed Mohan to spell out.

He seemed suddenly aware of the full weight of what he had just said. Then: "It's much better that we start getting organised a year-and-a-half before the elections, instead of only a month before." Several others nodded again.

Soon after, Mohan got up to leave. After two days with the Yatra, he and his friends were returning home that afternoon.

Yes, this Yatra is happening a year-and-a-half before the next Lok Sabha elections. Yes, it seems a largely Congress show. Yes, Rahul Gandhi dominates the coverage. Yes, there are questions about the Yatra's purpose and meaning, even among the small group I had come with. But with all that, there's still an over-riding focus among many who join the Yatra: never mind past disagreements, never mind the need to hold your nose if you have to–for there's a shared imperative here: to stand up to the party in power today.

Seen that way, it's an ironic reminder of an earlier moment in our history. That's when a group of parties came together–looking past disagreements and holding their noses–to form a coalition to front up to the party in power then. I refer to 1977, of course. Ironic, because the shared imperative then was to stand up to the party then in power–the Congress. And that year, the motley Janata coalition managed to dislodge the Congress from power.

It's not clear that the Bharat Jodo Yatra can build up momentum and strength on that 1977 scale. But in some ways, and at least for now, that was irrelevant.

One face of the Yatra is the Congress. It's a party in some disarray and depression, you might say, because of its nosediving political fortunes over the last several years. It has lost elections, it has lost veteran Congresswallahs and it has factions sniping at each other. If this Yatra is a way to rebuild political capital, to galvanise Congress activists, to show the Indian voter that this party will not roll over and fade away–well, for anyone who values Indian democracy, that's welcome.

But another face of the Yatra is the diversity of people who join. There are those like Yogendra Yadav and Mohan above, known and severe critics of the Congress in the past. But there are also the people bringing their own incredibly varied palette of issues to the Yatra. I mean LGBTQ activists and farmers, manual scavengers and schoolkids, unemployed youth and nomadic tribes and many more. Again, if this Yatra is a vehicle for them to bring their concerns to the attention of the Congress, but also to the country as a whole–well, that's welcome too. Because to me, this rich, colourful diversity is the authenticity and promise of India itself. This is what breathes spirit and life into the Yatra.

And why was I there? Partly because something like this gets my journalistic antennae quivering sharply. I wanted to simply watch and observe, in some sense not even really invested in the success or otherwise of the Yatra. Partly too, this was something I felt I had to do to stand up to the divisiveness, the hatreds, the polarisations that are marking out and deepening so many fault lines in this country. My solidarity with–luxuriating in, more like it–the diversity of India may mean very little in any broader sense. But it means a great deal to me, and that's what took me to the Yatra.

But I was also accompanying a small group of public health professionals. Two of them, Ramani and Ravi, are doctors trained in community health and have worked in primary health care for years in rural Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattis-garh, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Their friends and colleagues Guru and Prasanna are not doctors, but have worked with public health outreach organisations for years as well.

Working together over several days before we joined the Yatra, the four of them had prepared a brief on public health concerns–malnutrition, right to health care, and more. Their goal was to hand the brief over to the Congress leaders in the Yatra, including Rahul Gandhi. (They gave it to me to read and I had a couple of minor suggestions, which is why they added my name to the brief.) Through various contacts, there was actually a meeting scheduled–during the midday break on Monday October 10th–with Gandhi and others, where our group would present the brief. That was cancelled. Instead, the organisers arranged for us to walk with Gandhi for a while that morning.

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Vol 55, No. 19, Nov 6 - 12, 2022