It was around 10 am on Thursday. Waiting outside SMSM Higher Secondary School in this temple town, located between Kanyakumari and Nagercoil, was a teenager, Fathima, with her father. They had come to see Congress leader Rahul Gandhi who, along with party workers from across the country, took the first break on Day One of his cross-country Bharat Jodo Yatra at the school.
Rahul had already walked 13 km from Kanyakumari on Thursday. Fathima and her father, who live in Nagercoil, believe the yatra carries a noble message. Among hundreds of Congress workers milling outside the school was Arul Pandian, who runs an electric shop in Nagercoil; there was Sarfaraz Qazi, who runs an entrepreneurial development programme in Osmanabad, Maharashtra.
Qazi said he has taken a break from work to participate in the yatra for a few days. He said he is not a Congress worker — the party claims close to 50,000 people have already registered on the Bharat Jodo website — but wants to be part of the event, given the “growing atmosphere of hate” in the country. A quick conversation led to a discussion on the release of the convicts in Bilkis Bano case in Gujarat.
More than a century old, the school has a rich history. Inside, Rahul was shown handwritten notes of Mahatma Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari, when they had visited the school in 1937.
Rahul planted saplings with soil brought from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The yatra is rich in symbolism — besides planting of saplings with soil brought from various parts of the country every day, it will begin daily with a morning ritual of “jhanda vandan” (hoisting and salutation of the national flag), followed by recitation of “jhanda geet” and Vande Mataram.
Rahul attended a painting competition by children organised by Jawahar Bal Manch and then, away from media glare, held separate interactions with select groups of women and Dalit activists and representatives of the civil society.
Among those in the last interaction was Yogendra Yadav, a Congress fellow-traveler now. Yadav was seen walking with a group of civil society representatives.
The much-discussed sleepover of the yatris in 60 container cabins mounted on trucks adds to the symbolism. The containers have beds ranging from 2 to 12. Rahul and senior party leaders such as K C Venugopal, Digvijaya Singh and Jairam Ramesh stayed the night in the containers.
If the Congress wanted to create a buzz around the yatra and energise local party units en route, the participation on Day One has perhaps warmed party leaders’ hearts. But it is still early days. Kanyakumari and Nagercoil, for instance, are traditional Congress strongholds. Three of five MLAs from the district are from the Congress. The local MP — businessman Vijay Vasanth — is also from Congress. The party has 18 MLAs in Tamil Nadu.
Sitting under a tree in the school premises and looking relaxed, yatra coordinators Jairam Ramesh and Digvijaya Singh said it has begun on a positive note. “Between 3,000 and 4,000 people took part in the padayatra in the morning. There will be mass mobilisation by state and district Congress in the evening. We hope the number will reach around 20,000 (then),” Ramesh said.
“Rahul,” he said, “wants to cover 25 km a day, but many veterans are also walking with him. So we plan to walk 20-22 km a day.”
Kanhaiya Kumar, one of the yatris who will walk with Rahul from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, said he saw scores of people, including senior citizens, on both sides of the road and people making videos standing outside their homes and on balconies. “I think there is hope. As a political party, a political worker and an ordinary citizen, the biggest challenge before us is to maintain this hope among people,” he told The Indian Express.
Asked the big change he has sensed so far, Kanhaiya said, “More than change — change is inevitable; it will come even if you make no effort; change is eternal — what I felt on the first day is that the Congress will once again make an emotional connection with the people.”
On the yatra, which is going to be a gruelling exercise, Kanhaiya said, “See, I am wearing chappals. We have already walked 12-13 km. Actually, when you are in a group…it has a different power. The adrenaline level, the spirit are already high. One may not be able to walk alone, but the spirit, the warm welcome from the people…that gives you strength.”
The break over, the yatris began the next approximately 8-km walk sometime after 4 pm and concluded the day’s journey a little after 6 pm for a night halt at Scott Christian College ground in Nagercoil.