I know that people find it hard to believe that a political leader can embark upon a yatra (march) without a political objective. History has many examples of marches: Adi Shankara (700 CE: disputed, religious), Mao Zedong (1934-35, military), Mahatma Gandhi (1930, civil disobedience) and Martin Luther King (1963, 1965, civil rights).
When you read this column on Sunday, January 29, 2023, Mr Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra would have covered about 4,000 km in 135 days. Whatever one’s political persuasion, or even if one is not political, one cannot dispute that the yatra has been an unparalleled demonstration of grit, determination and physical endurance.
Why BJP’s alarm?
Mr Gandhi has repeatedly said that his yatra has no political or electoral objective and the sole objective was to spread the message of love, fraternity, communal harmony and unity. These cannot be neatly labeled as ‘political’ or ‘electoral’; hence, the BJP and other critics are flummoxed. The BJP has found irrational grounds to criticise the yatra. Its Minister of Health struck upon the puerile idea of ‘the danger of spread of coronavirus’ to make Mr Gandhi abort the yatra.
Mr Gandhi was not deterred. He has carried on regardless of the criticism. He has reached out to the people, especially the youth, women, children, farmers, labourers and the people on the margins of society. He has found confirmation of his beliefs that there is widespread poverty and unemployment in India; that every section of the people is groaning under the weight of inflation; that there are messengers of hate in society; and that Indian society is more divided than ever before. In street meetings and large rallies, he has expressed his anguish at the deep divisions.
Why is the BJP alarmed by the overwhelming response that Mr Gandhi has received during the yatra? Some things have to be seen to be believed. I walked with Mr Gandhi at Kanyakumari, Mysuru and Delhi. There were l-a-r-g-e crowds at every place. So it was in every State and at every place: I have seen photographs and videos. No one was bused to any point on the route. No one was paid to participate. No one was promised food packets. There were thousands of youth who walked. There were hundreds of middle-aged and old persons and children, on either side of the road, waving, throwing flowers and cheering. Nearly everyone had a mobile phone and took pictures.
There were special people like artistes, writers, scholars, political persons, disabled, etc. As far as I was concerned, the ordinary folk were the most important part of the yatra. They were sending a silent message that they had heard and understood the message of Mr Gandhi: that India was too divided and surcharged with hate and violence and the answer to the collapse of the social compact was embracing love, fraternity, communal harmony and unity.
Presence of poor
What hit me hard was the number of poor people everywhere. The deniers — if they were present — would have realised how many thousands were poor and that the cause of poverty was unemployment. According to the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2022, the proportion of poor in India is 16% of the population, that is 22.4 crore people. That does not mean that the rest are rich. The bar of poverty is low at `1,286 per month (urban areas) and `1,089 per month (rural areas). The unemployment rate was 8.3% in December 2022.
I am certain there were hundreds in the crowds who had voted for the BJP or a non-Congress party in the last elections, but I did not see any hostility on their faces.
Many were curious, but almost every one had a glimmer of hope in the eyes: will this yatra lead to a better tomorrow?
Why BJP’s hostility?
Why is the BJP hostile to the idea of spreading love and communal harmony? Because, despite sabka saath sabka vikas, the BJP has systematically excluded the Muslims and Christians and has disdain for the other minorities. There is no Muslim in the Union Council of Ministers. Of the 303 MPs of the Lok Sabha and the 92 MPs of the Rajya Sabha belonging to the BJP, there is no member who is Muslim. The sole Muslim Judge in the Supreme Court retired on January 5, 2023. BJP supporters find excuses to provoke violence such as wearing a hijab, inter-faith marriage, so-called love jihad, transporting cows, serving non-vegetarian food in hostels, etc. Lynching happens. Christian churches are vandalised. Ask any police officer in an area where there is a mix of the majority and minority communities and he or she will tell you that he/she is policing a tinderbox.
What about the man — Mr Gandhi — himself? The experience of the yatra may have influenced Mr Gandhi, but I know that it has brought about a remarkable change in the way people perceive him. Even BJP members reluctantly admit his grit, determination and willingness to bear physical stress. Dozens of people (who I know did not vote for the Congress) have told me that they see Mr Gandhi in a new light. It is obvious to me that the man’s message has percolated to all sections of the people.
The Man has earned respect. The Mission is an undoubted success. The Message has spread far and wide. That is good, for now.
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