Bharat Jodo Yatra: Where Do We Go from Here?

The Bharat Jodo Yatra is ending but the political pilgrimage has only just begun

Bharat Jodo Yatra: Where Do We
Go from Here?

Shahrukh Alam

First a confession: I was sick with the most dreadful bronchitis around Christmas day because I went to the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Delhi without wearing enough layers and was evidently exposed to the cold. The relentless cough had left me very annoyed.

In bed on New Year’s Eve, I saw a press conference where Rahul Gandhi was apparently answering yet another question relating to the cold and his T-shirt. “[Tell me] why have you worn a sweater?” he asked his interlocutor, “It isn’t because it is actually cold. It is not cold. The reason is you’re scared of the cold. I’m not scared of the cold.” I must admit I’ve had my fill of the political register of inanities. To say you’re not scared of the cold when our public health system is what it is, or when our infant mortality rates and levels of malnutrition are as depressing as they are, is inane.

There is another more serious reason for my annoyance. Just before I fell ill, I’d had a very intense discussion with my cousin about the political effectiveness of the BJY. Is it going to bring about any electoral change? And I had argued that a change in government would not in itself rebuild participatory democracy, or the institutions that seem to have withered away. We’d need to start from scratch, restore constitutional common sense, and create a more inclusive, more empathetic and more interrogative popular culture, which would recognise exclusivist and discriminatory dog-whistles as exceptional and unacceptable. But would certain communities in the line of fire even survive another term, till such a culture is readied?

I thought of Ganesh Devy’s description of the Yatra as a moral act, not one meant to mobilise electorally. I said to my cousin: “I can’t say, but without such restructuring, certain political ethics would still remain at the margins, even if there were a change in government.” I quoted at random from a draft report by the PUCL that collates the experiences of students who chose to wear the hijab in Karnataka’s government schools: ‘The teachers knew us and they knew how much studying meant to us. But nobody offered to help us.’

The social boundaries seem to have been completely redrawn. People can demand to know what Muslims have ever contributed to India, both flaunting their ignorance and the impunity that comes with an aggressively exclusivist discourse. A mere change in government would not end discrimination. I’d argued that we need new political registers while my cousin had insisted there wasn’t much time to build them.

In that moment when Rahul Gandhi answered in the inane, I did feel betrayed. To patiently wait for the fruition of the politics of love and inclusion, in the face of crumbling institutions, and then to have to fold back in on the same registers. Although, I’d readily admit that it was one gaffe, in one press conference, amongst a long series of thoughtful and imaginative things that he has said.

I suppose the BJY has to think about the ethical-electoral dichotomy too. Even in re. T-shirt, there are three distinct narratives. The first, and one that appeals to me the most, is the politics of equity, which references the Mahatma’s adoption of the loincloth because that was the common man’s share at the time. Most Indians were too poor to afford anything better. Rahul Gandhi has been repeatedly talking about what the poor are able to afford in the coldest times and how, in comparison, a T-shirt is his fair share.

The second register is that of penance/ asceticism, which refers to the idea of politics that is not centred on power, but one that cedes power and privilege in favour of more horizontal relationships and greater redistributive justice.

Asceticism could also be seen as resistance to neo-liberal policies and to oligarchies, which is a good thing, but then an inclusive political register would require those connections to be made explicit.

Among the narratives on offer, there is another that focuses on physical fitness. I haven’t seen it being tied to the prisms of class, caste, food security or gender, each of which has a bearing on the idea of fitness. Revati Laul wrote about the fetishisation of fitness, among men in general, as the BJY travelled through western Uttar Pradesh. Fitness translates into machismo (mardaangi), perhaps an equally banal response to the banality of ‘56 inches’.

If it weren’t for electoral exigencies, we could have merged these three narratives and complicated the idea of fitness as gendered, or explored asceticism as quiet resistance to materialism and inequitable distribution of resources. But where is the time? In the event, we have to have three separate narratives, each with its own audience. Or perhaps the BJY is about affective politics, rather than about political narratives that explicitly reframe ideas. Showing people how to hug, to love and trust, rather than talking about how virtuous that would be. Even so, there are different takeaways for different people.

It has been a long illness, and there have been many press conferences too. In yet another public interaction, someone asked Rahul Gandhi about the state’s harassment of dissident activist Soni Sori in Chhattisgarh. Gandhi gave a three-fold answer. First, he said, “Do consider that you would never be able to question Prime Minister Modi in the same way that you do us; second, the Congress party has never, as a policy, encouraged the politics of hate and exclusion [against minorities and dissidents].’ Finally, he said that he would find out about the allegations of harassment and, if there was a problem there, he would try and correct it.

The Modi government has created an exceptionally low bar for accountability. To ask questions is to be called a troublemaker. If you match a certain profile, asking questions or protesting might even invite an FIR under the UAPA. However, to start from the same low bar, even when ostensibly restoring democratic traditions, is wearisome. It is not enough that we are able to ask questions of certain leaders without fear of retribution. We have to have a public culture where it is normal to expect straight answers from our leaders. Gandhi said he’d find out about Soni Sori, but I’d argue that he must make it his business to know about her and other dissidents, about Adivasis who are protesting the policies of his party’s government, especially when he is speaking for dissenters elsewhere.

I have read Ganesh Devy’s piece on the affective and moral worth of the Yatra. I have been moved by pictures of workers and farmers and artists and writers holding Rahul Gandhi’s hands. I have also read Amrith Lal’s thoughtful piece on the importance of love as a political value. I am certainly willing to bide time until love as a political value reaches those dark places where trial court judges, hearing bail pleas of young Muslim men, casually ask: ‘Magar tum logon mein kya baat hai? Jis thaali mein khate ho usi mein chhed karte ho!’ Perhaps Rahul Gandhi’s search for a word that describes “all productive and working people, a word that does not have any shade of contempt or indignity” will one day help re-frame notions of who puts resources on the thali and who merely partakes of it; and how it is, in fact, a moral act to demand fair distribution of what the thali has to offer. To ask for more space is not to upturn the thali, but only the status quo.

The Yatra is ending but the political pilgrimage has only just begun. The pilgrims have to be mindful of how power settles even into relationships of love; that it is perhaps not enough to only love those on the margins; the new moral political narrative would have to continuously cede power and privilege to them. Rahul Gandhi’s measured responses about Soni did not display such abandonment yet, but we are in for the long haul, after all.

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