It was a controversy which the Congress could have avoided. The photographs of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) leader Medha Patkar walking with Rahul Gandhi during the Maharashtra leg of his Bharat Jodo Yatra has given the BJP, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, some fresh ammunition to attack the Congress and turn it into an election issue in Gujarat.
Patkar laughed off the controversy. Some Gujarat Congress leaders also feel the issue would not harm the party in the upcoming state Assembly polls but admitted the “dead issue” has certainly given Modi and the BJP an issue to talk about in their bid to set a narrative. They believe Modi has the “uncanny ability to spin issues”.
Some of the Congress leaders argue it was not a misstep but agree that its timing was not right. The Congress is putting up a brave face. In fact, sources said the party is now planning to reach out to more non-politicians — cricketers, activists, Bollywood celebrities, acclaimed authors and personalities from other fields — to invite them to be part of the Yatra.
The Yatra has seen a slew of diverse participants so far. From actors like Pooja Bhatt, Amol Palekar, Sushant Singh, Mona Ambegaonkar, Riya Sen, to activists like Medha Patkar and Prashant Bhushan, to prominent figures like Tushar Gandhi and Rashmi Desai besides Gauri Lankesh’s mother Indira and sister Kavita and Rohit Vemula’s mother Radhika.
The pictures of activists and Bollywood celebrities walking with Rahul, some holding his hand and some casually chatting with him have generated more buzz around his cross-country march. So how are these personalities joining the Yatra? Party sources say it is happening now at random. “Right now all of this is happening on an ad hoc basis. There is no plot to this. Frankly, there should have been a better outreach to celebrities and all,” a senior Congress leader said.
“All of them have come on their own. Most of these people make enquiries. People know which state the Yatra is in. And they will know somebody or the other in the Congress. They find out. They get in touch. The message is passed to Rahul Gandhi’s office or those coordinating the Yatra. His office got back to them and their walk was facilitated,” another leader said.
As the Yatra enters the Hindi heartland, the Congress is now however planning to mobilise more non-political faces and celebrities from diverse fields for the march. Most of those who have joined the Yatra so far, party leaders said, were genuinely attracted to the idea of “uniting India against hatred and division” put forth by the march while some were looking for limelight.
Whatever the case be, the Congress now feels it should put in a structure to encourage wider participation by inviting non-political personalities to join the Yatra. The plan is being taken forward perhaps with twin objectives — to engage with credible people with stature in their respective fields who share the idea espoused by the Yatra and to discourage those seeking their two minutes of fame. While some leaders said impromptu appearances bring a certain “amount of freshness” and ensure that their participation is not seen as “staged”, many feel it is time to make a planned outreach.
“After many requests the party is trying to put in a system wherein people have been given charge to see this exercise of ensuring outside participation. Rahul Gandhi has agreed to write (a letter in this regard). A list is being curated. The party is working on a list. Rahul will start writing. The list includes cricketers, Bollywood and television actors, activists, media personalities and authors,” a senior leader said.
The letter from Rahul, sources said, would be about the Yatra, the reason for doing such a grand exercise and its objectives and urge the personalities to support if they agree to its idea and goals. They will also be told they are welcome to join the Yatra which the party will facilitate.
Sources said there is no proper vetting process in place now. “It is all informal. There are many who wanted to come but we are not pursuing it because their presence could not be politically correct,” a leader said. He did not want to name them. “It will not be nice to them. It will be disrespectful. We don’t want them to join because of one reason or the other but we don’t want to create more enemies.”
Notwithstanding the Medha Patkar row, the Congress feels the visual impact of the Yatra has been tremendous. But the party will now have to indulge in some firefighting given that PM Modi has signalled his intention to turn up the poll heat. Asked about Modi’s attack, Patkar told The Indian Express: “It is laughable. It is politics..nothing else. Because the Prime Minister and the BJP of Gujarat are scared that Narmada could be an issue which could go against them because all their promises to the people of Gujarat have not come true.”
“In Kutch for example and Saurashtra…they inaugurated some canal this year and it breached within 24 hours. So what were they doing all these years? Because the water reached Kutch years ago. It was given to the industries. They have changed its total distribution plan and not done distributive justice….They have changed the plan in such a way that the water which was to be given to municipal and industrial sectors was 1.6 MAF — instead of that it has gone beyond 2.5 MAF. So the total irrigation that they have achieved is also very low,” Patkar said.
Patkar, who was associated with the AAP briefly, said about 100 civil society groups and social organisations had decided to extend support to the Bharat Jodo Yatra. “All the social movements and organisations which are not associated with or affiliated to any party, not even Congress, supported it. Because this is necessary. We had a one-hour-long dialogue with Rahul Gandhi. We had presented our own memorandum, telling him that should be his party’s initiative.”
“This initiative Bharat Jodo, Nafrat Chodo yatra is raising the real issue which is the issue of communalism, communal hatred, violence that is really permitting the rulers to ignore the real issues. People are facing hell with unemployment, underemployment, educational issues, privatisation and corporatisation in all sectors including health,” Patkar said. “We want the Constitution to be followed. We are having in parallel different yatras as a campaign…Nafrat Chodo, Samvidhan Bachao. Earlier we had given this slogan Nafrat Chodo, Bharat Jodo, but when they picked it up we decided to have this one. Our issue is also constitutional rights and human rights.”
Patkar also said, “We are supporting the initiative taken by the Congress because we feel this is worth it. It was necessary and whosoever out of the secular parties and politicians would take such an initiative, we will support it.” She said the Congress leaders were always in dialogue “with us even when they were in power, so there is no lack of communication”.
The NBA leader also said some of the “Bharat Yatris are not necessarily members or office-bearers of the Congress”, adding “I met them separately also when we were there. We discussed about social movements, people’s movements and electoral issues. That was the theme given. It was a very good dialogue.”