The Narmada rippled calmly as chants invoking her blessings wafted through the nippy morning air and hundreds of people led by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi crossed the Mortakka bridge to enter heartland India on Saturday.
Sunlight barely peered over the horizon. Mr. Gandhi had already marched some distance — his Bharat Jodo Yatra starts at 6 a.m. everyday and covers around 15 km in the first two hours. This is not for the faint-hearted or the weak-kneed — the pace is back-breaking, the terrain can be challenging. The yatra has covered 2,300 km by Tuesday, 83 days after starting from Kanniyakumari.
The previous evening, Mr. Gandhi had performed Narmada aarti at Omkareshwar where Adi Sankara found his guru. The BJP government in Madhya Pradesh is planning a statue of the sage from Kerala — Statue of Oneness — there. For the MP from Kerala too, this is a journey of discovery — of himself, his party and the people. In his early phase in politics, Mr. Gandhi had tried to reform the Congress, but he gave up that idea when the party lost the 2019 Lok Sabha election. He quit as president and has refused to return.
Mr. Gandhi seems to be testing the endurance of his comrades. A woman carried her shoes in her hand after they came off and walked barefoot for several kilometres — one can’t stop without dropping off.
Dinesh Sharma, an ardent follower from Haryana, is walking barefoot from Kanniyakumari. He has vowed to remain shoeless until Mr. Gandhi becomes India’s Prime Minister. Wrapped in the colours of the national flag, and carrying one, he walks just one step behind Mr. Gandhi.
Along the way in his political life, an array of leaders who profited from association with Mr. Gandhi crossed over to other parties. Some have stuck around.
Two fierce loyalists — Omkar Markam, a tribal MLA from Madhya Pradesh, and Jothimani, Lok Sabha member from Karur in Tamil Nadu — were in the close circle of Mr. Gandhi that day.
“The media is hostile to Rahul ji. He’s talking to the people directly through his yatra,” Mr. Markam said. “These images will spread,” he said, pointing to the people along the route taking pictures in Barwaha town.
Mr. Gandhi stopped for a moment to listen to Shannu and her daughters — ragpickers in the town. He held them close. “People find him accessible. Women feel safe and confident around him. They come and hug him with affection and wishes,” said Ms. Jothimani.
Chirag Arora, an engineer, travelled from Bengaluru to join the yatra on the weekend — for the third time. “I just want to be one of the thousands who believe in what he says. For me, this is not about Rahul. I would join anyone who says what he says, about the need for harmony, and unity,” Mr. Arora, who landed in Indore late night and slept in a cab, said.
He had voted for the BJP and the Congress in the past in Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh, where his parents still live. ““Rahul says he draws energy from the people..He should make a make clear distinction in his speeches that there are two kinds of crowds in the country..one cheer on hate etc and second which is walking to unify the country. One shall decide which crowd they want to be part of…”
Life in the yatra’s moving township of containers comes alive by 4 in the morning. By 4.30 breakfast is served, and exactly at 5.30 a.m. everyday the national flag is hoisted. “Food is high protein, to help people cope with the physical hardship,” a participant said. Evenings are enhanced by music and cultural events. There is a library, and there are no strict regimens.
Mr. Gandhi’s speeches and interactions meander around ideas of violence and hate, love and unity, and the founding values of the republic. Beyond these abstracts, he talks about the crisis of the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) and the burden of unemployment. “Eight hours of my day, I am listening to the people, not telling them what I think … I hear their heartbeats. I feel their pain,” he said at a public meeting in Mhow, the birthplace of B.R. Ambedkar near Indore, on November 26.
The party paradox
The frenetic yatra is also an escape for Mr. Gandhi from the malfunctioning Congress. One set of his advisers thinks electoral politics is meaningless or evil, even as factional rivalries and confused messaging bind the party in knots. Mr. Gandhi perhaps hopes to strengthen his own hands by drawing power from the people directly, and then deal with his recalcitrant colleagues. “That is the paradox of this yatra ... Can we achieve anything without the party?” a close follower of Mr. Gandhi wondered.
“Yatras have shaped the destiny of this country for ages — be it of Buddha or Sankara or Mahatma Gandhi,” another more optimist aide of Mr. Gandhi, said.
A more immediate task is to tell the enemy from the companion. The CRPF human fence around him is on constant vigil, as are party volunteers trying to keep the leader safe.
“Throw her out,” a commander shouted as a woman breached a rope barrier and dashed towards Mr. Gandhi. The response was swift, the lady was removed faster than she arrived.
Only those cleared by his aides can move close to the leader, but every now and then someone lunges towards him and a commotion follows. Mr. Gandhi remains unfazed.
In Madhya Pradesh, anonymous threats of a bomb attack had the police on the edge. That evening in Mhow, Mr. Gandhi recalled how he lost his father and grandmother to violence — Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber who showed up as a party worker and Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards with whom Mr. Gandhi played badminton as a child.
“I don’t fear anyone. When you fear, you hate,” Mr. Gandhi said.
Danger lurks. Friends may be fake but enemies are real. Mr. Gandhi hopes sheer determination will carry him forward.
The Upanishads implore the human to explore the real, the truth, his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India. “In the Aitereya Brahmana there is a hymn about this long endless journey which we must undertake, and every verse ends with the refrain: Charaiveti, charaiveti — ’Hence, O traveller, march along, march along!’”
The march is on. Long. Arduous. Lonely.