The Congress’s Bharat Jodo Yatra led by Rahul Gandhi started on its 19-day Kerala leg on Sunday after completing the Tamil Nadu stage in four days. In Tamil Nadu, reports of the march generated goodwill in some quarters, according to the Congress, while one functionary said the party should have covered more districts in a state where it has nine MPs.
While Congress leaders criticised a section of the media for not providing “deserving coverage, the party shared visuals and messages from the yatra on social media.
State Congress spokesperson Anand Srinivasan said the party was happy with the overall response in the first three days of the yatra, which began on September 7. “At many places, there was an overwhelming response from the ordinary people and Rahul being an approachable leader gave them the confidence to walk to him and greet him,” he added. “There were children, as well as people in their 80s and 90s, greeting him and talking to him apart from the scheduled meetings and visitors. Even the public rally on the first day wasn’t prepared in a big manner but there were over 40,000 people as against the 15,000 or 20,000 people we initially expected.”
The Congress spokesperson said security had always been a concern but added that the state police had been cooperative. “While being very strict and taking our help too in maintaining basic security rings, officers were also careful that nobody was denied a chance to talk to him (Gandhi),” said Srinivasan.
Another senior state Congress leader told The Indian Express that many people had said in their feedback that the party should have covered a few more districts. “Having many MPs here, we should have planned it better. Even if Rahul couldn’t have gone to other districts, we should have planned district-level rallies for 10 or 20 km at least in places where we have MPs,” he added.
Apart from Tamil Nadu Congress Committee chief KS Alagiri, parliamentarian S Jothimani who is known as one of Gandhi’s confidantes was the key organiser of the yatra’s Tamil Nadu leg. A Congress leader who is known as Jothimani’s rival said she did a “marvellous job” in organising the foot march and was able to bring people from all walks of life to interact with Gandhi.
Activists who met Gandhi
Among those who met the Congress MP despite their strong disagreements with the party was Chennai-based Dalit activist Shalin Maria Lawrence who is a prominent voice on social media and is often attacked by right-wing trolls. Lawrence said she broke down during her five-minute interaction with Gandhi.
“Even when I am happy for the Congress leadership and previous regimes for their many policies, including Panchayati Raj and the employment guarantee schemes, I cannot stand with them on many other issues, whether it is UAPA or Kudankulam, or their upper-class politics … I told him that I was happy to have this space as a Dalit woman and getting such a space in the Congress party was unimaginable. I was very comfortable talking to him, I said we expect a lot from him … and I cried when I spoke about Dalit atrocities. He immediately stepped in and said I shouldn’t cry. I am a Dalit Christian, I can say that I felt important there,” Lawrence said.
SP Udayakumar and his friends who were at the forefront of a fight against the Manmohan Singh-led Union government to shut down the Kudankulam nuclear plant, and Sundar Rajan of well-known environmental group Poovulagin Nanbargal were among the activists invited to Kanyakumari to meet Gandhi.
Udayakumar said a senior Congress leader initially told him that he should not raise the Kudankulam issue before Gandhi as it would embarrass the Congress leader. “I said I will not attend the meeting then. Someone outside the party reported this to Rahul and I was told the same night that I can talk to him about the Kudankulam nuclear issue too. He listened to me, he asked questions and doubts … He was a good listener. I wanted to meet him because it is a do-or-die situation in India now, it is very important that we should stand with a leader like Rahul even as I have different opinions about his party,” said the anti-nuclear activist.
Sundar Rajan said he decided to meet the former Congress president because of his decision to lead such a march on foot. “He had a sharp understanding of issues. The questions he asked were relevant. When I told him about the plummeting maritime wealth due to the nuclear reactor, he asked me about its details. He paid close attention to the Sterlite issue. When a group told him about their strong resistance to the proposed new container terminal at Kanyakumari, he asked for project details and nobody knew it. I felt that he has got a totally different sense of democracy that is scarce in India now.”
Among the other activists invited to meet the Congress leader were Kittu Krishnamurthy of the Anti-Sterlite Tuticorin District People’s Movement, Peter Milton from the Fishermen Welfare Association, Arul Arumugam who is part of a movement against the eight-lane Chennai-Salem highway, Murugammal of Vellangiri Hills Tribal Protection Society, and Prof TNM Deepak of the December 3 movement (a movement of persons with disabilities).
Environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who is known for his consistent stance against ruling dispensations, said he believes Rahul is making a sincere attempt at reaching out to people through the yatra. “I don’t know about the Congress party but I can see a consistency in Rahul’s public interactions. He is seemingly promising and democratic, a good listener and ready to engage with, qualities that have become scarce in politicians these days.”