When Rahul Gandhi said in Cambridge last May that “going directly to the people” was the only option left to forge a new politics in India, I was sceptical. No, not of his intentions as he remains easily the most consistently sincere political figure. Rather, this was entirely due to my habits of thinking that instinctively turn to history and the long and tough order of its legacies.
There have been two iconic mobilisations that have transformed India’s politics in the last century. The first undoubtedly is MK Gandhi’s Salt March of 1931 that overthrew the British Empire and laid the foundations of Indian democracy. Sixty years later, in 1991, LK Advani’s drive through India on a Toyota converted into a mock chariot or his rath yatra ensured the political and electoral arrival of Hindu nationalism. If Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is inspired by MK Gandhi, then its politics openly seeks to contest and undo the politics of Hindutva.
Precisely as it channels the past, Bharat Jodo Yatra is an intervention in the here and now, and it seeks to direct India’s political future. Little wonder then that the overwhelming question from commentators has been whether the Bharat Jodo Yatra will deliver significant electoral gains for Rahul Gandhi and the Indian National Congress (INC). This is not an irrelevant question. Anyone who says that the Bharat Jodo Yatra is not political will convince few if anyone. But yes, it is ostensibly not political in the narrow and instrumental sense of any one election. In deliberately expanding the meaning of what the political might mean, stands for and could deliver, the yatra echoes none other than MK Gandhi.
The question of electoral outcomes, however, hides the hard and slow work of mobilisation and the creation of new political vocabulary and sentiments that have preceded and founded any meaningful political victory in modern Indian history. Despite appearances, and all the number-crunching of colour-coded surveys or the prophecies of psephologists, elections are still not purely a rapid-fire game show.
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Gandhi and Gandhi
At the outset, the Bharat Jodo Yatra has revived the spirit, politics, and ethics of the ‘father of the nation’. This is entirely befitting as MK Gandhi was the key foe to the political ideas and practices of Hindutva. This foundational political and psychic opposition has predated and goes well beyond the question of Gandhi’s assassination.
In speaking up by walking the length of the country for nonviolence as opposed to violence, sacrifice as opposed to power, compassion as opposed to force, inclusion as opposed to exclusion, and above all, love as opposed to hate — Rahul Gandhi’s yatra has clearly and effectively laid out the ideological stakes and battlelines of any forthcoming electoral battle.
Secondly, the power of walking needs explaining. While images and bytes are awash with Rahul Gandhi’s fitness and stamina, for MK Gandhi, walking was a visible exercise in self-transformation. It was at once most democratic and demanding – democratic because it was open to all; demanding because it was based entirely on individual willpower to get up and go.
In the zealously policed public spaces of colonial India, this was not only radical but also entirely frustrating for the empire and the Indian elites because walking had forsaken the dominant languages of both bomb-throwing at and negotiating with the imperial masters for power. More profoundly, walking involved changing the self, internally and collectively. For MK Gandhi, who was sparing in his mobilisations (one major movement every decade), walking or fasting or staying silent for hours or even spinning the charkha were hard, daily practices for the cultivation of nonviolence and restraint. In short, no effective political emotion or idea, least of all nonviolence in a climate of hate, was pure instinct that could be mobilised by rousing the willing into action. This is why Gandhi emerged as the supra-figure in the twentieth century age of mass militarism and total war. Bombs, guns, and uniforms were no match against the might of a simple human act honed on the back of spiritual labour.
Finally, MK Gandhi slowed down the relentless pace of politics by interrupting the constant relay of words and chain of action and reaction. Walking is slow if deep work even if Rahul Gandhi has been sprinting 20-odd kilometres a day. Not every historian or indeed Indian is a fan of MK Gandhi. Likewise, some will still question the destination or aim of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. But if you are in a hurry, take a pause and calculate: it took another 15 years after the Salt March for the British to finally quit India. Breaking, interrupting hard-held conventions and staging and winning of new ideas have a distinct temporality from election rhythms. Arguably, it took Hindutva minimally 65 years since the founding of the Rashtriya Swayam Sangh (RSS) in 1925 to Advani’s power march. If not that, then consider that even Advani’s rath yatra did not yield immediate electoral hegemony for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). I am not going to take a punt on any electoral outcome. But the collective act of walking today has nevertheless created a distinct vocabulary and personality for a new politics in the Hindutva age.
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Walk contra rath
Even the harshest critic of MK Gandhi will credit him for being an ace campaigner. Undoubtedly, he was a master of the visual medium even before mass media came to hold its sway. In today’s highly stylised and saturated image wars dependent on an army of social media warriors and image gurus, the Bharat Jodo Yatra has provided a new visual vocabulary: unrehearsed, ordinary and spontaneous.
Leaving aside ideology, and to briefly compare the latest yatra in Indian democracy to Advani’s rath yatra, two major features stand out. One, Advani’s yatra was accompanied by megaphones as it made its way through India. The relative silence of the Bharat Jodo Yatra makes it a quieter and more assured form of persuasion. Most importantly, the rath yatra left a legacy of violence in the form of riots, and worse. Rahul Gandhi’s yatra has been singularly staked on the power of nonviolence. On this most important yardstick, the Bharat Jodo Yatra is a total winner.
MK Gandhi’s politics sought to transform the harshest and most violent of foes through the power of patience, restraint and sacrifice. In walking and speaking of love, forgiveness and compassion, Rahul Gandhi has paid homage to arguably the most significant founding father of India.
If you are now beginning to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi opening himself to minorities or others excluded by Hindu nationalism, then you can thank (or indeed blame, if you are so inclined) Rahul Gandhi and his Bharat Jodo Yatra for that. For my historically attuned habits, this alone counts as a landmark victory, over and above any electoral outcome.
Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)