In 1995 the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. took place to promote African American unity and family values. Estimates of the number of marchers, most of whom were men, ranged from 400,000 to nearly 1.1 million, making it, at the time, the largest gathering of its kind in American history.
The Power of the "Padyatra"
On 16 May this year, the Indian National Congress announced a nationwide campaign in the form of a Padayatra called the “Bharat Jodo Yatra” stretching from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, with the goal to promote peace, harmony, and brotherhood amongst the many religious, caste and linguistic groups that constitute our great, vast, and diverse nation.
From the Mahatma’s historic Dandi march in 1930 to the many regional padayatras carried out by Congress leaders across the country, the Padayatra (journey on foot) has been one of the most effective methods of mobilizing people for a common cause, creating widespread awareness of the challenges facing our country and popularizing individuals and their opinions amongst the masses.
The Padayatra, like many other popular methods of expression pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi, finds its roots in religion, spirituality, and the pursuit of truth.
Various religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam propound walking as a form of meditation in action. The nations of the world are thus strewn with numerous pilgrim routes—a historical testimony to the role of walking in humanity’s pursuit of the inner truth. In India, Swami Vivekananda travelled mostly on foot all over India from the Himalayan peaks, through the land, to Kanyakumari, the southern tip of Indian peninsula and home to the Vivekananda rock memorial where he has said to have attained enlightenment.
Spiritual Journey to Political Mobilization
The cardinal difference between the religious Padayatras and the political Padayatras is that while the former is very much an internal exercise about self-reflection and one’s own consciousness, the latter is to draw attention to an issue, a person or a weltanschauung with the overarching goal of making an impact on the public’s consciousness.
The Padayatras that followed the Mahatma’s Dandi march were of two distinct types. Those that immediately followed his example were carried out with more religious/spiritual moorings such as that of Vinoba Bhave who adopted the padayatra to popularize ‘Bhoodan’ (gift of land) in the 1950s, and that of Sunderlal Bahuguna in the 1980s, who conducted padayatras across Uttarakhand to raise consciousness about the environment in general and the Chipko movement in particular. The idea was to mobilise people for a particular cause by using the religious/spiritual imagery that was associated with padayatras. Folk songs, reciting the Bhagwat Kathas, and day long fasts that accompanied the Padayatra enhanced the spiritual context of the campaign.
The second type of Padayatras that have been carried out by organisations such as the Ekta Parishad, Swaraj Abhiyan, or even by political leaders such as YS Rajasekhar Reddy in Andhra Pradesh or Former Prime Minister Chandrashekhar have not had a religious or spiritual context and have been as much about engagement with the masses and listening to their problems as about disseminating a particular message or promoting a particular worldview. In the case of the campaigns carried out by the Ekta Parishad or Swaraj Abhiyan, these initiatives have worked well to mobilise a particular section of the masses such as farmers or marginalised groups and have often collaborated with or solicited and gained from the involvement of political parties such as the Congress and the BJP.
The usage of Padayatras as a tool to achieve electoral success in more recent times is best exemplified by the Late YSR’s padayatra across the state of Andhra Pradesh. The Yatra was well timed—a year before the state went to polls, was replete with electoral promises, and was the centre piece of the election campaign’s messaging. It served many purposes as it allowed YSR to bring together the many warring internal factions of the Congress party in Andhra Pradesh and establish himself as a commoner fighting for the masses as opposed to Naidu who had started to become a symbol of modern and urban elitism.
The Padayatra has thus evolved over the years from being a spiritual exercise in self-discovery to being a successful medium to register political protest and finally finding a place as key component in electoral campaigns.
Bharat Jodo Yatra: A People’s Movement
The Congress’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is set to be launched less than two years away from a general election but given that it is supposed to last for only 150 days and cover 12 states, 2 union territories, and 3,500 kms on foot, it is unlikely to be the centrepiece of the party’s 2024 electoral campaign. Furthermore, the party has invited all sections of the society who are committed to the democratic values enshrined in our constitution to join the Yatra, thereby creating the space for it to take the form of a people’s movement.
In an environment where the space for majoritarian politics and cultural nationalism is rapidly expanding, it is indeed heartening to see the Congress party construct a campaign standing for constitutional values and civic nationalism. The phrase “Bharat Jodo” is a call to Join together a Bharat that is being broken apart along multiple fault lines. The fault lines in India today are not merely deepening around religious identity but are fast forming around the small businessman and the monopolistic crony capitalist, the farmer and trader, the educated unemployed youth, and the inheritance squatter, the Adivasis and the miners of their natural wealth. This breakdown of social contracts across the country is a direct result of the absence or abdication of the true arbiter of these contracts—the government of India—which seems to be doing everything it can to increase the concentration of power and money in the hands of a few.
The question that remains open with respect to the Bharat Jodo Yatra is whether there will be a return to the spiritual moorings of Gandhi pioneered Yatras or will it be more Nehruvian in its approach? There are strong opinions on both sides of this question but regardless of the answer, the Bharat Jodo Yatra promises to be the largest mobilisation campaign conducted by the Congress Party in the post Rajiv Gandhi coalition era of politics. It will provide the party with a chance to reimagine the genre of Padayatra politics and, maybe through it, reinvent itself once more.