THE dusty zigzag path between Lasangaon village in Dhar district and Jalkoti in Khargone is a far cry from the power corridors of Delhi. For company, instead of the hangers-on, the once powerful Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh has fellow yatris and local Congress activists. It’s midway through his 3,300-km Narmada Parikrama, and over the three months he has been walking, the Congress has given the BJP its closest poll fight yet, in Gujarat, and Rahul Gandhi has finally taken over as party president.
Singh says he doesn’t miss the action; though he does claim to have texted Rahul to congratulate him. In the months leading up to that change, one of those who fell by the wayside was Singh. Once in-charge of several other states, a survivor of many a poll loss, even considered briefly a confidant of Rahul, the 70-year-old was stripped of the charge of three states (Goa, Karnataka and Telangana) in quick succession last year. Soon after, he announced he was going on this gruelling “spiritual yatra”, claiming it had been an old dream. He was categorical it had little to do with the fact that Madhya Pradesh goes to polls this year — though the yatra, through three states, would end up covering 110 of the 230 constituencies in MP.
“Arre Darogaji, aur kitna baki hai (How much farther to go)?” Singh, a walking stick in hand, jovially asks a local constable he spots along the way. “Narmade Har (Hail Narmada!),” he calls out to villagers walking in the opposite direction. “I know doctor saab. I keep getting feedback that he is very strict,” he says, patting a man on his back and talking about his father. “Arre Amrita suno,” he calls out at another point to journalist wife Amrita Rai, who is also doing the yatra with him, to introduce her to a senior local leader.
The personal connect helps, with many people using the address “Rajasaheb” for him and “Maharani” for Rai, a throwback to the erstwhile Raghogarh principality his family once ruled. Several touch their feet.
Before Singh arrives at Jalkoti, loudspeakers greet him and the 250-odd others doing the pilgrimage with “Hardik, Hardik Swagat”.
At most halts, Singh indulges in small talk, meets old acquaintances, and mentions the yatra is “the fulfilment of a vision of two decades ago”, made possible because of leave granted by his “boss”. He doesn’t address any gatherings, though Singh and Rai take photographs and check their mobiles at their halts.
Every day begins and ends with prayers offered to the Narmada. A small vehicle travels alongside carrying a kalash with Narmada waters, and is a designated “temple”.
There are no media cameras around to capture the visuals of the man often reviled by the BJP and sister outfits for his anti-Hindutva statements. Or to watch him assert his stated Hindu leanings.
Rai, also carrying a walking stick, her head covered with a pallu, usually walks ahead of Singh, with a few women. There are instructions to fellow yatris and villagers not to walk in a manner that dust is kicked up.
While Singh may have kept Congress symbols of any kind out of the yatra — as he promised — the party, not surprisingly, is confused about the distance it should maintain. Particularly when, as Singh points out, “even BJP and RSS leaders call on me because the parikrama has no political overtones”.
So the food for Singh, a former CM of 10 years, and his 200-plus fellow yatris, as well as snacks and tea, are arranged by local Congress leaders. All senior party leaders of the state, including former Union ministers Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kamal Nath (both fellow contenders for the Madhya Pradesh CM post) and Kantilal Bhuria, have called on Singh during the parikrama.
Every three days, a schedule is drawn up for the three days to follow. Usually 15-20 km are covered in a day. The nights are spent at supporters’ homes or tents are pitched when homes are not available. An occasional night, Singh says, has been spent in a guest-house, while only once have they had to fall back on a hotel. The parikrama has taken only two, one-day each, breaks, one during Diwali and the other at Maheshwar.
Singh explains how he has managed so well. “I stopped counting my age once I completed 50. For more than four decades, it has been a habit with me to do 70 minutes of yoga and pranayam. I can cover the distance faster too, but there are a group of women with me so I walk a little slowly,” he says. “Always between 78 and 81 kg”, “a little overweight for my height”, he is not keeping count of the weight he may have lost, he adds.
Rai admits she has found the yatra tougher. “I always liked nature and wanted to walk along the river, but did not realise it would be so demanding physically. I have never walked this much. One can overcome mental challenges, but this takes some effort.”
Among the few political questions Singh answers are about whether he is in the race for Madhya Pradesh CM’s post, should the Congress win. “I have no political aspirations for MP but I want to see the Congress come back to power in the state,” he asserts.
Singh ducks questions on the recent Gujarat verdict, and the triple talaq Bill brought by the Narendra Modi government.
A few minutes later, he loudly greets a Muslim family living along the road with a “Salaam alaikum”. As the woman looks confused, unsure how to respond, a companion chides her to acknowledge the greeting.
“I was never anti-Hindu,” Singh responds to a question on whether the parikrama is an effort to counter that charge. “Show me one politician who has visited so many temples and completed parikramas. And now Narmada Parikrama, the biggest of them all,” he says, rattling off names of some of those temples.
Treading that thin line between political and personal, Singh is more circumspect when asked if there are specific concerns people have raised with him along the way.
Rameshwar Nikhara, a senior Congress leader who is a part of the yatra, is more vocal. He says people are angry with the government, especially those affected by submergence caused by the increase in the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. “Hundreds of temples could have been saved with a little reduction in the height. The BJP is ready to massacre people for one temple but not bothered about hundreds of temples.”
The yatra is scheduled to end in mid-March, well ahead of the expected November polls in MP. Asked about the first thing he will do after completion, Singh says, “I will unite all the Congress leaders.”
That would be a task, given the several party factions in MP, headed by satraps such as Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Arun Yadav and Suresh Pachauri.
About whether the yatra will help Singh’s own political career, the jury is out. As the senior Congress leader carried on his spiritual journey, Rahul was hopping temple to temple in Gujarat — both in a way feeling their way around a changed political landscape. According to party sources, it was suggested that Rahul drop in to join Singh when his yatra passed through Gujarat in the midst of the poll campaign. Rahul eventually did not.