Rath Yatras may be a good tool for mobilising masses on emotive issues such as those based on caste and community. To bring about a bigger social and political change, Padyatra is a much better exercise, observes Soroor Ahmed

The Bharat Jodo Yatra of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is the first such exercise since May 2014 which appears to have forced the Bharatiya Janata Party on the backfoot.

With one-third of the 3,570-kms long march completed, the ruling party is keeping a close eye on the development. As the BJP was not used to such a massive counter-move by the 137-year-old party, its top brass is drawing a fresh strategy to neutralise the impact of the Kanyakumari to Kashmir march.

With Rahul to remain on move for five months, it would not be easy for the central agencies to carry out their works against him, such as summoning him for interrogation. Any such action at this point of time has the potential to backfire.

Since Rahul has literally hit the road in the manner no Sangh Parivar leader has ever done, the saffron camp is struggling to chart out its own plan of action to checkmate him. His long march can only be equated with that of the 140-day Bharat Yatra undertaken by the then Janata Party leader Chandrashekar between January 6 and June 25, 1983. This 4,260-kms long Bharat Yatra was also kicked off from Kanyakumari and concluded in Kashmir.

The BJP leaders, especially Lal Krishna Advani, had also taken out several country-wide road shows, but none of them was Padyatra (foot march) as being undertaken by Rahul and Chandrashekar, who in late 1990 became the Prime Minister of India.

In pre-Independence India, Mahatma Gandhi often resorted to long marches and fast. The most famous one was March to Dandi undertaken in 1930.

Be it Advani or another BJP president, Murli Manohar Joshi, they preferred Rath or chariot. In fact, they would travel in an air-conditioned pick up van to criss-cross the country. The most famous one being Advani’s Somnath to Ayodhya Rath Yatra which ended up abruptly on October 23, 1990 when he was arrested in Samastipur on the order of the then Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. The present Union Minister Raj Kumar Singh was the district magistrate of Samastipur then.

Whether it is a foot march or Toyata or Mercedes journey, the Yatra gives an opportunity for political leaders to mobilise the masses and get in touch with them.

But then the slow-moving Padyatras are certainly different from the one undertaken on luxurious van. The former provides a much better opportunity to understand the mood of the masses and the impact is much more long-lasting. The foot marches give much more opportunity to listen from the toiling people.

On the other hand, in Rath Yatras, it is only the leader who speaks at various previously-planned points. In this case, there is no scope for interaction.

I have brief experience of covering and thus in a way participating in both Padyatra and Rath Yatra of different leaders (not Advani). And they helped me fathom the difference between the two mass mobilisation exercises.

In another instance, I, along with a couple of other fellow-travellers, had to walk at least 25 kms (up and down) in Purnea district of Bihar. In between we had to wade through two rivulets (thus up and down four times in total) as there was no bridge on them. It was the monsoon of 1999 and Purnea falls in the flood prone region of the state.

But Rahul, like Chandrashekar, had to travel this much distance every day for five long months – be it under scorching heat, in heavy rain or amidst icy cold wave of Kashmir in February 2023.

“Go to masses, learn from masses and teach the masses,” Vladmir Lenin, the leader who brought about the Communist Revolution in Russia in 1917 is reported to have said.

These marches are among the best way to instantly connect with the people. But the Rath Yatras are much cosmetic in nature while the Padyatras are much more grounded, and enriching.

So, within a few days of Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, many of the journalists, who in the past dub him as a reluctant politician who frequently flies abroad, had to change their opinion about him.

The problem with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s upper echelon is that they cannot undertake any such foot march to cancel out the impact created by Rahul. At most they can do is to address more number of public rallies, which have their own limitations. They do not provide any chance to the masses to speak. The people have listened too much and now they want to be listened.

But then much depends on the way Rahul overcomes the political pot-holes in the months ahead before the 2024 election comes.

Take the case of Chandrashekar. After 1983 Padyatra he managed to create somewhat favourable atmosphere for himself, even though his Janata Party was no match to the Congress. PM Indira Gandhi, notwithstanding the grim challenge she was facing in Punjab, was still a much powerful leader. The BJP was nowhere in the scene then.

But then came the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. This prompted Rajiv Gandhi to take over. In the subsequent election held in December the same year the Congress, riding on the sympathy wave, swept to power by winning a record 415 seats. Chandrashekar lost his own Balia Lok Sabha seat in east Uttar Pradesh. It was the only defeat he had ever suffered.

Curiously, while Advani’s Somnath to Ayodhya Yatra still gets media attention, his two other roadshows get little publicity as they led to his disastrous defeat or brought to end his political career. On March 10, 2004, he as the Deputy Prime Minister of India kicked off a 8,000-kms long Rath Yatra from Kanyakumari. This 33-day long exercise was in fact an election campaign as India was going to poll in April-May.

This India Shining and Good Governance campaign, aptly named Bharat Uday Yatra, failed as the Bharatiya Janata Party was surprisingly voted out of power when results were announced on May 13. The roadshow was marred by unsavoury incidents. Hours before the AC Mercedes Rath, with all sorts of latest facilities, entered Koderma in Jharkhand, Naxalites triggered several landmine blasts in West Singhbhum district of the newly-created tribal state, then ruled by a BJP government. Twenty-six policemen were killed in this tragedy.

And on October 11, 2012, Advani, now lone and forlorn former Deputy PM, embarked on Jan Chetna Yatra, which was flagged off not by any saffron party leader but by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, the leader of alliance partner Janata Dal (United).

Ten months later, on September 13, 2013, the BJP parliamentary board announced the name of Narendra Modi, the then Gujarat chief minister, as the PM face, replacing heart-broken 85-year-old Lauh Purush (Iron Man). That was the last of Advani.

Rath Yatras may be a good tool for mobilising masses on emotive issues such as those based on caste and community. To bring about a bigger social and political change, Padyatra is a much better exercise.

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