A scene in Richard Attenborough’s award-winning film Gandhi encapsulates the importance of yatras (journey) for a political leader to achieve a goal. When Mahatma Gandhi says India is an “alien” country to him, his leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale responds, “Well, change that.”
“Go and find India. Not what you see here, but the real India. You’ll see what needs to be said. What we need to hear,” Gokhale would advise him. And thus began Gandhiji’s travel across the country in a third-class train coach.
From the days of Gandhiji, yatras and marches have proved to be an effective method of reaching out to people and knowing their pulse. Against the backdrop of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi embarking on the Bharat Jodo Yatra from Kanniyakumari to Kashmir, The Hindu traces some of important rallies and marches from the Tamil Nadu soil.
While some yatras, such as the Rath Yatra of BJP leader L.K. Advani, changed the course of Indian politics, others have failed to fulfill the objective. Most leaders prefer Kanniyakumari to launch their yatra because the landscape in the southern tip of mainland India gives a distinct identity and idea to the slogan, “From Kanniyakumari to Kashmir”. While reporting about Gandhiji’s tour in March 1925, The Hindu reported it as “Mahatmaji’s Tour—Cape Comorin to Vaikom”. He came again in 1937 and worshipped at the Nagaraja temple along with many Scheduled Caste members. “After worship at the shrine, Gandhiji and the small band of Harijans who followed him were given prasadams by the chief priest,” reports The Hindu.
“Yatras offer a great opportunity to interact with people without any intermediaries. When a piece of news reaches the high command through other sources, it may get distorted. Yatras are a simple, but effective political strategy to read people’s minds. Gandhiji did it by launching Dandi Salt March,” says Durai Vaiko, the MDMK headquarters secretary, who had worked behind the scene for the yatras of his father Vaiko. He says that when social media have become a primary tool of communication and it is not possible to fully verify the veracity of any issue and development, yatras will help a leader get the right information.
Mr. Vaiko, who has embarked on many yatras, 1994 launched a Kanniyakumari-Madras “awakening march” when his party was in the nascent stage. A decade later, after his release from detention by the Jayalalithaa government under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, he undertook a 42-day “renaissance march” from Tirunelveli. Traversing by foot across 1,025 kilometres, he dramatically ended it near the Marina in Chennai, outwitting the police who were out to arrest him. Much like Mr. Rahul Gandhi’s contention that his yatra is bereft of any political agenda, Mr. Vaiko had said, “The march is not for deriving any political advantage. It has social, economic and cultural aims. We dedicate ourselves to the establishment of a casteless society. We want to reach people.”
Unfortunately, wrong strategies and political compulsion forced him to align with Jayalalithaa two years later, attracting widespread criticism. It was from Kanniyakumari that BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi started his Ekta Yatra in 1991. Two days before the event arrived a man, whom the nation did not know much about at that time, made the arrangements. It was Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister, who played the role of a back-room boy during the yatra.
BJP leader L.K. Advani’s Bharat Uday Yatra started from Kanniyakumari on March 10, 2004, and travelled through 122 Lok Sabha constituencies before reaching Amritsar. But the outcome of the 2004 Lok Sabha election went in favour of the Congress. Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, a leader of the Janata Party, started his Bharat Yatra from Kanniyakumari in 1983. Though it made him and the party popular among the masses, the party could not gain any mileage out of it politically. “The success of a yatra depends on the strength of the cadre of a political party. Chandra Shekar could not achieve the desired effect because of the lack of party strength. But I strongly believe Rahul Gandhi’s yatra will lead to a change in the country and consolidate the political forces against the BJP because Nitish Kumar is also making similar efforts,” contends K. Thirunavukkarasu, a historian of the Dravidian Movement.
What came in the way of the Janata Party in the 1984 general election was the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which led to a Congress sweep. DMK leader M. Karunanidhi undertook a padayatra from Madurai to Tiruchendur in 1982. The aim was to press the AIADMK government of M.G. Ramachandran to arrest the trustees of the Tiruchendur temple in the wake of the Paul Commission’s findings. He demanded immediate action against officials of the departments of Police, Revenue, Medical and Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments responsible for the death of C. Subramania Pillai, verification officer of the temple. The march made a huge impact, and Karunanidhi could keep the issue alive. But MGR’s popularity prevailed; he won the 1984 general election from his hospital bed in the U.S.