You have to join the walk to talk to Rahul Gandhi. His day is full. He must do at least 15 km in the forenoon and 10 in the afternoon to cover 3,571 km and complete the mission of walking Kanyakumari to Kashmir in 150 days. For now, that is just about the only plan in place for the party. “My colleagues walking with me ask what my plans are after the padyatra? I have none,” Rahul says.
Might as well not plan at all when, for eight long years out of power, not many plans worked. The few that did are in Kerala and the mood here is upbeat. Pilot vehicles announce the arrival of ‘Gandhi’ and amplify the Nehruvian legacy of the leader in transit, evoking weighty parallels of Dandi Yatra and Discovery of India. Rahul himself sees his march as nothing grand. He says it is just a way of slowing down to be with the people, an effort to see India “in slow motion”.
“I used to cycle a lot as a child and found that it is a better way to connect to the world than driving. When you are in a car, everything whizzes past.”
Thousands have gathered to watch. Some just stand on any spot high enough to get a good view. Some more eager to catch the leader’s eye are jostling to keep pace along the edges of the walkway-mukt Kerala highway. Rope-wielding policemen on either side struggle to keep the security protocol in place. Organisers repeatedly lament how the Central government downgraded Rahulji’s security. The walker couldn’t care less.
“It is when you walk that you get to see people. And they can see you. New spaces emerge for interaction. Quite a task, though. The sun is harsh, terrain uneven. It is tough on the knees. But then that is how people go about their lives, through occasional pain. Look at that school girl. She is walking barefoot. No, not a smart thing to do.”
The political journey is a bit wanting on plans, but that is more than made up with metaphors and stories. Not all of them are as casual as they seem.
One such anecdote was put to good use at a roadside meeting that closed the previous day’s yatra. Halfway through the speech, Rahul recalls his meeting with the ruler of the UAE. “The king told me his nation was built by Indians.” Explanation follows. “India’s ethos has always been to reach out, build bridges and not live in fortresses as our rulers do today.” A short pause and then the punchline, “That is how you Keralites went out and built Dubai.” The audience cheers.
On the strength of the refreshed crowd connect, Rahul targets the Modi government for “favouring” super-rich monopolies. “Every time you visit the petrol pump, much of your money goes not to the state but to private coffers.”
Just when you think he will rub it in, he changes tack. Pointing to the mobile phone shop across the road, he hopes “that the small business out there doesn’t shut shop soon”. Cheers again, from a crowd that can’t applaud only because almost every hand holds a mobile phone camera recording the visiting celebrity.
Rahul seems content to engage rather than provoke, and it suits Kerala’s politics. No point in tearing into the BJP and losing the floating Hindu vote. Can’t offend the Left outright either. Back home in Delhi, you must break bread with Comrade Yechury. Again, there is no scope to better the Kerala score in 2024. In 2019, it was a clean sweep.
Fifteen out of the total Congress tally of 53 seats, including Rahul’s own, were won from Kerala. The party is stable hereabouts. Most state leaders, some visibly exhausted, have walked and walked to make sure they are seen and counted. They would soon see off the walker in chief as he moves on to Karnataka. P C Vishnunath, MLA and AICC secretary in-charge of Karnataka, will continue to accompany him. Married to Kannada writer and theatre person Kanaka Ha Ma, Vishnu can follow spoken Kannada. An extra ear is most useful when Rahul enters the BJP turf. That is when the national padyatra would well and truly begin.
(The writer walked with Rahul Gandhi on the leg from Pattambi towards Koppam, on September 26)