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Sansad to sadak – Why grassroots movements are joining Congress’ Bharat Jodo Yatra

A change is taking place in Indian politics that most are missing.

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India needs a bridge, a political one that connects opposition parties with grassroots movements. Last week provided a glimpse of what such a bridge might look like. The possibility of resuscitating Indian democracy and reclaiming our republic depends on this political innovation.

Recently, some of the leading grassroots movement groups, which have had a history of keeping away from political parties, decided to engage with one major political campaign – the Bharat Jodo Yatra initiated by the Congress party. The challenge to the very existence of our country has forced these groups to connect with mainstream opposition parties and make a political intervention. At the same time, this intervention is non-partisan in that it is not tied to promoting any one political party and refuses to participate in the competition amongst and within opposition parties. We could call it non-partisan politics of resistance.

Unsurprisingly, the novelty of the form did not grab headlines. Media reports were all about Rahul Gandhi interacting with ‘civil society’. Fake news about him having conceded defeat in the 2024 elections made some rounds, till the TV channel withdrew this baseless insinuation. There were some speculations about some “andolanjivis” joining the Congress. No one had the patience to find out who these organisations were and the nature of support they had offered to this yatra.

Also read: Zubair or Udaipur – Under Modi, India has entered era of total politics

Recent bridge-building initiatives

Over the last year, there have been several efforts to create such a bridge. [Full disclosure: I have been part of most of the meetings and initiatives that I mention here]. Several eminent persons, intellectuals and activists met in Delhi in September 2021 to explore the possibility under the working name “India Deserves Better”. Subsequent meetings were held in Bengaluru, Kochi, Jaipur, Prayagraj, and Guwahati. Some of these participants have carried the initiative forward as “Hum Hindustani”. The basic idea is to forge a broader unity of all those who wish to reclaim the republic and strengthen the hands of democratic resistance.

These initiatives have gathered pace as threats to democracy continue to grow bigger every day. Three significant consultations were held this month. On 13-14 August, ‘Rashtra Nirman Samagam’ was held at Varanasi by a group of activists associated with Gandhian institutions and the JP movement. These included Amarnath bhai, Ramachandra Rahi, Prashant Bhushan and Anand Kumar. The meeting resolved to launch a multi-pronged nationwide movement to strengthen national unity and save democracy.

Meanwhile, the Congress had announced its plans for Bharat Jodo Yatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir and appealed to all citizens, organisations, movements and political parties to join it. Digvijaya Singh carried a letter from the Congress president to G.G. Parikh, eminent freedom fighter and senior Socialist leader, seeking support for the Bharat Jodo Yatra. This was followed by a meeting on 19 August in Delhi comprising about two dozen peoples’ organisations, including the National Alliance of Peoples Movements (NAPM), which decided to launch a “Nafrat chhodo, Bharat jodo abhiyan” and extended support to the Bharat Jodo Yatra announced by the Congress. The signatories included Medha Patkar, Justice Kolse Patil (retd), Ali Anwar, Tushar Gandhi and Dr Sunilam.

The interaction between people’s movements and Congress leadership held at Delhi’s Constitution Club on 22 August must be seen in this context. About 150 well-known representatives of people’s movements (from 20 states, cutting across ideological and sectoral divide) gathered in a conclave on invitation by a group comprising Aruna Roy, Bezwada Wilson, Devanoora Mahadeva, Ganesh Devy, P.V. Rajgopal, Sharad Behar and myself. The main agenda was whether and how peoples’ movements could associate with the Bharat Jodo Yatra. After extended discussion, a presentation by Digvijaya Singh and frank interaction with Rahul Gandhi, the group unanimously decided to welcome and “expressed their willingness to engage” with this yatra.

This represents a significant moment in the history of party-movement relationships in India. To be sure, all the participants have not signed on to joining the yatra; each movement and group will explore its own ways of engaging with this initiative. The participants freely aired their apprehensions and reservations about the readiness of political parties to take up principled resistance to the politics of hate. And these grassroots movements have by no means tied themselves to the Congress party. They might be open to extending support to similar initiatives by any other opposition party, provided it promises an effective democratic resistance to the assault on democratic institutions and constitutional values.

Also read: Anti-CAA to farmer protests—India’s productive masses are giving real meaning to Tiranga

From non-party to non-partisan

That is precisely what makes the current phase different from what was once called ‘non-party political processes’. In the 1980s, theorists of Indian democracy noticed a strange beast roaming around in the jungle of politics. These were not political parties; these did not contest or intervene in elections. Yet these were not philanthropic or charitable NGOs, nor just pressure groups. These formations were political as they took political positions, resisted political power and were guided by political ideologies. Scholars such as Rajni Kothari, D.L. Sheth and Harsh Sethi – all based at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) – described these grassroots protest movements as ‘non-party political formations’. They pinned great hopes on this new form that Indian democracy had invented, different from anything that Western democracies had known.

The imperative of democratic resistance necessitates a partial reversal today. Instead of deliberate and productive disengagement between party and non-party politics, we need to design forms of engagement between these two forms of politics. Political parties in the opposition need movements more than ever before, as they turn into political machines sans cadre, organisation and ideology. Over the last eight years, it is sadak and not sansad that has provided the key site for resistance.

Also read: The great paradox of Indian democracy: citizen uprisings but no opposition

At the same time, grassroots movements need political parties more than ever before. With the growing intolerance of protest and dissent, election is the only democratic arena available to us to affect political change. Politics of resistance cannot remain indifferent to electoral outcomes and political parties that can win elections. Movements offer depth, parties provide scale. Movements bring issues, parties mediate and aggregate these into an agenda. Movements bring raw energy, parties channel these into effective outcomes.

That is why we need a special purpose vehicle that is neither a political party nor a movement organisation. It must involve shaping policies and perspectives, but not as a think tank. It must launch campaigns, but must not remain merely a campaign organisation. It must intervene in politics, including the big Lok Sabha election of 2024, but not become a political party. An extraordinary challenge that we face today requires an extraordinary instrument. We need not just a new vehicle, but a new kind of vehicle, a special purpose vehicle as it were, curated for public action at a very special moment in history. Such a bridge could shape our future.

Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. Views are personal.

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