Mandya, Karnataka: Sumathi Manjunath, a Congress worker from Bengaluru, was up at 3 am Thursday and waiting at the Jakkanhalli crossing, about 45 km from Mandya town, since 6 am. She and many more women, all dressed up, were waiting to catch a glimpse of Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
“We are excited to see her. When she was unwell, we couldn’t help her in any way. All the ladies from Karnataka have arrived here. We want to tell her that all women stand with her and seek her blessings,” Sumathi said.
“We don’t mind waiting for another 6 hours if required. We just want to see our leader,” she added, as cars made their way and the women raised the slogan of ‘Sonia Gandhi Zindabad’.
The Congress’ Bharat Jodo Yatra has now been on for a month and has traversed through Tamil Nadu and Kerala before entering its current leg in Karnataka.
After suffering two bouts of Covid, Sonia has been keeping extremely unwell and went abroad for a couple of weeks to avail medical treatment. Sonia returned after the yatra had begun. Her son, Rahul Gandhi, held fort, walking about 25 km each day of the yatra which began from Kanyakumari on 7 September.
At the Udaipur Nav Sankalp Shivir in May, where the idea of the yatra was floated and passed, Sonia had promised that even “the old” like her would participate in the physically strenuous event — the biggest the Congress has organised in many years.
And it is not lost on the Congress cadres that she has kept her promise.
“Sonia Gandhi is walking on the streets of Karnataka to unite this country, to help the farmers and to speak out against corruption. You can see that crowds have gathered as early as 6 am. That speaks for what she means to them. It is the honour of the country that she’s walking today,” Karnataka Congress president D. K. Shivakumar told ThePrint.
A mother-son moment
While Rahul always walks in the front file of the caravan, a visibly enthused Sonia joined him this time. Due to her health, the 75-year-old Congress president could only walk about a kilometre and a half, but that was enough to enthuse the cadres and, possibly, her son too.
At one point during the walk, Sonia’s shoe laces got undone but Rahul quickly tied them up. The Congress president also interacted with leaders of the Karnataka unit, asking some of them to walk in the front file with her.
Soon enough, however, a concerned Rahul asked her to stop so that she doesn’t aggravate her health problems. After a little protest, Sonia gave in and sat in a car. She spent about two hours with yatris, interacting with as many as she could.
On Wednesday while the walkathon was on its weekly break, the mother-son duo visited the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve. There the two spotted an elephant and its injured calf. Thereafter, Rahul wrote to Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, “crossing political boundaries” to seek help for the calf.
Like Sumathi, there were an overwhelming number of women who were present at the yatra. Some in sarees with sport shoes, rubber chappals and even barefoot.
Speaking to ThePrint, Sanjana Srikant, district president of the Mahila Congress in Mandya, claimed that they have been working round-the-clock for 15 days to ask women to join the yatra. And the response, she said, was overwhelming.
“We used to go to every taluk and speak to the ladies. All of them in the rural areas know Indira Gandhi very well. They used to say, ‘Oh, Indira’s daughter-in-law? We want to go and see her’,” said Sanjana.
Many others like 56-year-old Kamrunnisa from Hassan were also excited to see Sonia because they’d seen Indira when they were younger. “She had come to Hassan when we were kids. We’d lined up and pushed crowds to catch a glimpse of her. It was a similar spectacle today as well,” a beaming Kamrunnisa said.
She was accompanied by 57-year-old Zarina, who said that they had to make a 10-hour journey to come for the yatra. But the journey and the walk took a toll on her knees. “I think I’ll just sit here now and drink ‘nimbu paani’. Don’t think I’ll be able to walk anymore,” she said.
But immediately those around her reminded Zarina of Sonia’s recent ill health and said if Sonia can do it, she too can. They then go on to talk about the (Nehru-Gandhi) family and their “contributions” to the nation. The entire group from Hassan has always voted for the Congress.
Sonia’s determination to join the yatra, in spite of her health, is the reason why Poornima Koliwad decided to travel 300 km from north Karnataka to join the yatra.
“She’s our leader and even with all the illness she’s made her way till here so we don’t mind coming all this way for her. We are all overwhelmed to see her. I wish her a speedy recovery and hope that she continues to guide the party for many more years,” Poornima said with a note of optimism.
(Edited by Tony Rai)