Mandya, India – A nationwide “unity march” led by India’s main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has reached its 80th day and is currently winding through the streets of Madhya Pradesh state in central India.
The “Bharat Jodo Yatra” (or Unite India March) started from Kanyakumari, the southernmost point of India in Tamil Nadu state on September 7. It will cover 3,500 kilometres (2,175 miles) to reach Indian-administered Kashmir in the north – entirely on foot – in the next 70 days.
Gandhi is the 52-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family – his father Rajiv Gandhi, grandmother Indira Gandhi and great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru had all been India’s prime ministers. Gandhi is a parliamentarian and has served as the president of the Indian National Congress party.
Since the “unity march” began in early September, Gandhi has been walking an average of 20km (12 miles) every day, accompanied by more than 100 fellow travellers and thousands of people joining the march when it reaches their neighbourhoods.
— Bharat Jodo (@bharatjodo) November 29, 2022
In Madhya Pradesh, Gandhi was joined by his sister Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, who is now one of the main campaigners of the Congress party.
Several activists, academics and actors have walked with him so far in the march that has already traversed the four southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and the western Maharashtra state before entering Madhya Pradesh last week.
Issues being raised at the march
After India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, Gandhi has been attacking the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological fountainhead, the secretive far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which counts Modi among millions of its lifetime members.
Since its formation in 1925 along the lines of the fascist groups in Europe, the RSS – and BJP as its political wing – have been pursuing a communal agenda that aims to transform a constitutionally secular India into an ethnic Hindu state. Critics fear India’s 200 million Muslims will be reduced to second-class citizens, and have their political and human rights drastically curtailed.
Gandhi has been raising these issues throughout the march. “The purpose of this march is to stand against the hate and violence spread by the BJP and RSS,” he said in his first speech after entering the BJP-ruled Karnataka state, considered by many as a “Hindutva” or Hindu supremacy laboratory in the south.
“The march will go from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. It will not stop – rain, heat, cold, storms, nothing … It will go like a river. And you will not see hate or violence in this march, only love and brotherhood. This is the history of India and this is the DNA of India,” he said.
The Congress leader has also been raising other issues, including unemployment and price rise, as he accuses the BJP of helping a few billionaires get richer while a large majority of Indians remains poor.
“Unemployment is rising by the day … People of India and Karnataka are getting crushed between unemployment and price rise,” he said.
Political experts say the mammoth march is aimed at rejuvenating the Congress as electoral debacles and infighting haunt the party. During the “unity march”, the party elected veteran parliamentarian Mallikarjun Kharge as its president, a significant departure from the Gandhis heading the party.
Experts say the march is an experiment to rebrand Gandhi as the main face of the opposition before the general elections due in the summer of 2024.
‘Surreal to walk with him’
Last month, Gandhi was in Mandya, a small town in Karnataka about 100km (62 miles) from Bengaluru, India’s Silicon Valley. The highway was lined with colourful banners and posters as counters for drinking water and snacks greeted marchers and residents of the sugarcane-growing region.
Gandhi started the walk at about 6:30am local time and covered much of the distance before 11am, after which he and his team had several meetings with members of the civil society. In one of those meetings, Gandhi met Kavitha and Indira Lankesh.
Kavitha is the younger sister of murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh while Indira is their mother. Gauri was gunned down in 2017 outside her Bengaluru residence allegedly by members of a far-right Hindu group.
The Editors Guild of India had called Gauri’s killing “an ominous portent for dissent in democracy and a brutal assault on the freedom of the press”.
After Kavitha and Indira met Gandhi, they accompanied him on his march walk for some time.
“It was surreal for me to walk with him and talk about the death of a family member. At one level we were amongst hundreds of people and yet we had this deeply personal conversation. We spoke about how he felt about the deaths in his family – father, grandmother and I spoke about Gauri. He took care of my mother while we walked and the conversation was heartfelt. That ethos has almost disappeared from our narrative nowadays,” Kavitha told Al Jazeera.
Kavitha’s sentiments have been echoed by many who have marched with Gandhi in the last three months.
On the same day, the Congress politician also met some activists opposing the revision of textbooks being taught in Karnataka government schools in order to propagate the Hindutva agenda, a project scholars refer to as “saffronisation” because saffron is the defining colour of the Hindu right.
At a rest stop in Mandya, sugarcane juice was distributed to comfort the marchers in the scorching heat. A group of children, dressed in traditional costumes, waited to meet Gandhi.
Among them was Rifah Taskeen, a 12-year-old Muslim girl wearing the hijab. Taskeen holds a world record for driving more than 17 kinds of vehicles before she turned 10. Her doting father talked about the adulation his family received from the Gandhis. “We can’t do much about what is happening around us. But we hope things will change, for the sake of our children,” Tajuddin told Al Jazeera.
Mukeshraj Shah, hailing from Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh where the march currently is, echoed the sentiment. “We need to worry about farmers, unemployment and we have to bring the feeling of camaraderie among all communities back,” he said.
‘Safe space for Muslims’
Several Hindu right-wing groups operate in Karnataka, where the BJP government has passed a series of laws and orders banning the wearing of hijab in public schools or against alleged “forced conversions”. Activists say this form of “institutionalised communalism” has further marginalised the Muslims and incidents of hate and violence have increased.
“First, they get legitimacy in public and then it goes to the government assembly for validation. We as civil society have not responded enough and that’s their success,” Aishwarya Ravikumar of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, told Al Jazeera.
Despite launching campaigns such as Say No to Hate, advocate Vinay Srinivasa feels the situation in Karnataka has only worsened. “Polarisation is driven by a wide institutional framework. The RSS is helped by a large section of the media. Classrooms are polarised, the society is deeply poisoned,” he said.
Given this situation Srinivasa says the “India unity march” has assumed a deeper significance. “We don’t know how it will address the root cause of polarisation. But the Congress has made it a safe space for Muslim men and particularly women to have their identity and participate in public. However, we must also think how bad the times are, that we have to laud a political exercise for creating this space,” he said.
It is an analogue ‘yatra’ (march) in the age of social media.
Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh told Al Jazeera the march is “not going to suddenly transform the communal scene” in India.
“It is an ideological battle. The important thing is, for the first time, the Congress is playing cricket on the pitch that it has prepared. Until now we were playing on a pitch that was doctored by the BJP,” he said.
“For the first time, we have set the narrative and agenda – that’s the difference. The real challenge will be to build on the momentum that is created by the yatra (march).”
‘Analogue’ march in a digital age
Ramesh denied the party was trying for electoral gains or rebranding Gandhi through the march. When asked why the march is limited to 12 of 29 Indian states, Ramesh said factors such as security, distance and logistics had to be considered.
“Many more Bharat Jodo Yatras are being planned in different states such as Assam, Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar,” he said, adding that finance was the party’s biggest challenge.
“We have to find the money to feed 3,000 people every day – breakfast, lunch and dinner … We have to generate the resources,” he said.
Writer and journalist Girish Kuber said the march has created good optics but the party mechanism to capitalise on the goodwill is lacking.
“The leaders are also unsure about how to project it. Is it for revival of the party, for projecting Rahul Gandhi as a future leader? Whether it will help them get votes is difficult to say,” he told Al Jazeera.
Krishna Prasad, the former editor of Outlook magazine, wondered whether, in an age of instantaneous social media where public memory is short, if people will remember the march once it crosses their state.
“It is an analogue ‘yatra’ in the age of social media,” he told Al Jazeera.
Still, Prasad felt the Congress march is a much-needed attempt at uniting India.
“Whether this effort will result in any political or electoral gains is a different question. The most important question this march has raised is this: is there a market for goodness? Currently, India has become a major market for toxicity. Will this analogue ‘yatra’ in the age of social media make goodness appealing to people?”