“Our activities generally begin 10-15 days before elections. Then the village comes alive,” Jitendra Singh Tomar says, sitting under a tree in Baswan village, nearly 60 kilometres from Khandwa, in Madhya Pradesh. A staunch Congressman, he could barely catch a glimpse of Rahul Gandhi when he and his fellow Bharat Jodo Yatris passed through Baswa last week.
A banner welcoming Rahul on behalf of the villagers still hung from a tree across the road. And there are some Congress flags atop grocery and tea shops in the vicinity.
Tomar’s friend Khemraj Ghander, who has also been a loyal Congress worker, says there is not much party activity through the year. The Yatra was a “welcome change,” he says, adding that people had lined up on both sides of the road to see Rahul.
The party activities in the area, he says, are coordinated by “Patelji” from Sanawad, referring to Narendra Patel, a Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) general secretary. Patel’s residence is also the office of the Sanawad Block Congress Committee in Khargone district, where his local rivals may not feel at home. Patel is however a tad upset and so are local party leaders.
A stage was set up at Sanawad to welcome Rahul that cost thousands of rupees. Food and refreshments were arranged for the Yatris. Rahul was to stop there but did not – and even the MPCC general secretary is clueless why his scheduled halt was changed at the last minute. “He just passed through Sanawad waving at people,” Patel says. In Baswa too, villagers had procured 500 litres of milk to make tea. It all went to waste, Tomar says.
Similar stories were told by other Congress workers across the Yatra route in Madhya Pradesh – the first Hindi-speaking state the Yatra entered, through Burhanpur on November 23, since it started from Kanyakumari on September 7.
Cut to Mhow. It is 11 am but the city Congress office is yet to open. A nearby shopkeeper says it opens only when there is some party event. Pramod, another shopkeeper, waves at an elderly man who passed riding a bike. “Seva Dal,” he calls out. Naresh Sharma, a contractor in his 60s, was appointed the local Seva Dal coordinator just a few weeks ago. He had to arrange the accommodation for 200 Seva Dal volunteers who had reached Mhow, the birthplace of B R Ambedkar, where Rahul visited the “Bhim Janm Bhoomi” and addressed a public meeting on November 26, the Constitution Day.
“I spent Rs 9,000 to arrange their accommodation at a dharamshala. I am yet to pay them. They are after my life. We don’t get funds from the MPCC,” Sharma says.
The dust of the Yatra has settled in these districts. Scores of the Congress leaders and workers whom The Indian Express spoke with along the stretch that the Yatra took so far during its ongoing Madhya Pradesh leg – in Indore, Mhow, Khandwa and Khargone districts – admit that the challenge before the party now is to sustain its momentum. “We cannot go back to sleep now,” said a party leader.
The Congress has to continue organising activities and not remain dormant, says Khargone MLA Ravi Joshi. “We will have to organise similar yatras in all districts,” he says.
The Congress leadership is yet to send out such directions. It may be perhaps too early for that since the cross-country Yatra is still passing through Madhya Pradesh, where Assembly elections are due in December next year. However, there is a common refrain from the Congress rank and file that the Yatra has energised the party workers. “Workers charge up ho gaya,” says Khemraj.
They also say the Yatra has also the “right political optics”, while conceding that the challenge now is to take its message to every village. “The image about Rahulji… People used to call him Pappu and all…that has gone. They saw him walking through the roads…they heard him talking,” says Sanjay Joshi, a teacher in Barwaha.
Rahul visited Mahakaleshwar and Omkareshwar temples, which are among the 12 Jyotirlinga sites in India. The photographs of Rahul, with his forehead smeared with vermillion, performing Aarti wearing a saffron shawl and walking through the dusty roads of Madhya Pradesh sporting a tilak, are being sent and forwarded through the party’s formal and informal WhatsApp groups.
“I don’t mind Rahulji visiting temples. In fact he should do it more often. The BJP has portrayed the Congress and Rahul as anti-Hindu,” says Sanawad city Congress chief Aftab Hilal. Patel agrees. “We are disappointed that he did not stop at Sanawad. But it would have pained me had he not gone for darshan at Omkareshwar,” he says.
In messages to Dalits and Adivasis as well, Rahul paid his homage at the Ambedkar memorial in Mhow and to tribal icon and freedom fighter Tantya Bhil at his birth place in Khandwa.
The Congress leadership realises that sustaining the Yatra’s political tempo, not just in districts through which it is passing but also in states it has already traversed, is imperative. Sources said review meetings are being held state-wise by Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge in this regard.
The first indication about the leadership’s follow-up action came when it removed Sake Sailajanath as the Andhra Pradesh Congress chief. “It happened after a review meeting of the Yatra in Delhi. A key feedback was that the Andhra PCC chief and his team were totally ineffective. The Yatra was very bad in Andhra in the sense that the PCC president did not seem interested. Our situation in Andhra everybody knows but the effort and the way in which a PCC president should conduct was missing. It is a small thing, a low-hanging fruit but it was done. Oommen Chandy, the AICC in-charge of Andhra, was to be dropped too. He is physically incapable. But he continues. It shows Khargeji does not want to take radical steps,” a leader said.
In the poll-bound Karnataka the party is planning to organise four bus yatras as a follow-up to the Bharat Jodo Yatra. “Siddaramaiah, D K Shivakumar…all the big leaders will embark on separate yatras. They will also walk some distance. Each one will cover 60 Assembly seats,” another leader said.
“Yes we are doing regular follow-up. It is not that we are sitting idle after the Yatra passes through a state,” an AICC leader said.
But the Congress leaders in areas through which the Yatra passed in Madhya Pradesh say Rahul should have engaged with local leaders, although they understand security concerns. “He should have met prominent local leaders at least for four-five minutes… It cannot be like a morning walk. He just walked waving his hand. People could not see him. There is a security cordon and he is surrounded by senior leaders,” Pramod says.
“If he stops and meets everyone, the Yatra will never end. It will not reach anywhere,” an AICC functionary said, justifying the speed of Rahul’s march.