HE WILL walk some 20-odd km every day with a select band of around 150 workers, sleep in makeshift containers, and interact with people from all walks of life. The arduous 3,570-km yatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir that Rahul Gandhi is set to embark on from September 7 is the longest such campaign in his nearly two-decade political career and the biggest mass contact programme his party has undertaken in decades.
However, the Congress is not just walking the talk, it also walking the tightrope on the yatra, traversing 12 states over 150 days: it does not want the march to be seen as yet another attempt at image makeover of the Gandhi family scion, often lampooned as a reluctant political heir; it is consciously playing down the fact that Rahul will lead the yatra; it has refused to make it clear whether he will lead it as the Congress president; and it wants to send a message that the yatra is not just any other party programme but meant to include all walks of life.
So, keen that civil society groups be part of the yatra, Congress managers have assured them that it will not be conducted under any party symbol or flag, to dissuade any misgivings they might have.
As part of this packaging of the yatra as a non-partisan event, its logo that was released by the Congress Tuesday bears neither the party name nor Rahul’s photograph.
However, the brochure released by the Congress was less ambiguous, saying the party is “playing a key role in organising the yatra and our senior leaders including Rahul Gandhi will actively participate in the yatra. The tagline is ‘mile kadam, jude watan (we walk as one country)’.
“They are not going to display the Congress flag or Congress panja (hand) and walk around. They are going to use the national flag. They are not going to shout slogans like ‘Rahul Gandhi zindabad’. The yatra is going to basically look at issues which the people are facing… Out of enthusiasm, some people may say ‘Rahul Gandhi zindabad, but in terms of policy it was decided that there will be no Congress symbols,” said P V Rajagopal, the head of the Ekta Parishad, a people’s movement for land rights, who was present at an interaction held by Rahul on Monday.
While the Congress had also appealed to like-minded political parties to be part of the yatra, so far there has been no positive response from them.
The Congress’s outreach to the civil society is also significant given its chariness about them after having engaged actively with them while in power from 2004 to 2014.
A National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi and acting as a think-tank for the Manmohan Singh-headed UPA government was packed with civil society representatives. Many ministers in private referred to them derisively as “jholawallahs”.
The Congress’s ties with the civil society had later turned frosty after a section of them turned against the UPA government in the wake of the Anna Hazare movement. Incidentally, among those present at Monday’s interaction with Rahul Monday was Yogendra Yadav, one of Hazare’s closest lieutenants at the time and a bitter critic of the Congress.
Not denying this, one of the civil society representatives present at Monday’s meeting said: “All that is past. The situation has changed… As and when the situation changes, the assessment also changes, and the political direction also changes.”
On Monday, Yogendra Yadav said: “We welcome this Bharat Jodo Yatra because this is the need of the hour. We have agreed to engage with it. Engagement can take many forms. In some cases, engagement can be that someone would walk right from the beginning till the end… someone will walk for one day, someone would go and welcome, someone would extend support.”
Rajagopal said it was easier to engage with the Congress. “The Congress party did something to give voice to the poor people in terms of policies… the land acquisition Act (The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act), the Forest Rights Act… When Syeda Hameed was a member of the Planning Commission, I remember they opened a separate window for voluntary organisations to deal with the Planning Commission,” he said.
The same was very difficult now, Rajagopal said. “You saw what happened with the farmers’ agitation… The civil society organisations are facing a lot of problems. If there is hate in the society, if there are problems in terms of shrinking of democratic space for voluntary organisations, if there is increase in the cost of living, these are all issues affecting the people who are working with the poor.”
He added: “So when a call like this is given, we thought the right thing is to engage and support, wherever it is possible.”
Life on the road
Sharing details about the yatra, sources in the Congress said Rahul will start after paying homage to father and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi at his memorial in Sriperumbudur (where he was assassinated), near Chennai. He will be accompanied by 150-200 Youth Congress workers from the beginning to the end, and they aim to cover around 20 km every day.
About resting in makeshift containers for the night, the sources said: “It is clear that the yatris cannot stay in hotels or houses of party workers. Putting up tents every 20 km to house 250-odd people (including security personnel etc) is an expensive proposition and a logistical nightmare. So we have decided to procure 50-odd containers. These will be 20×10-ft containers which can accommodate a maximum of four people. Beds will be put up inside. In some containers, there will be washroom facilities too,” one leader said.
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He said the containers will be transported on 50-odd trucks, to the planned night halts. The pace will be unhurried. For instance, while the yatra will begin from Kanyakumari on September 7, it will enter Kerala, 60 km away, only four days later.
The yatra will then be in Kerala for 11 days or so (Rahul is an MP from Wayanad in Kerala) before entering Tamil Nadu briefly on its way to Mysore in Karnataka. It will pass through Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Punjab.