As journalists, we can support or oppose a political party, like or dislike a politician. But that is an individual choice. In our capacity as journalists who report on events, we are compelled to put aside our personal prejudices when we report. At least, that is the ideal and that is what we are trained to do as journalists.
We know, of course, that such an ideal scenario barely survives today. With a nation so deeply divided along political and religious lines, especially in the last eight years since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the centre and in several states, we have seen these divisions reflected in media coverage.
An ongoing example of this is the Bharat Jodo Yatra, or what is being called Rahul’s Yatra. Rahul Gandhi has set off with a group of Congress supporters and others not in the party to walk roughly 3,500 km from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. Just the concept of a group of people undertaking such a journey, irrespective of who they are, should pique the media’s interest. Even more so when the central figure is a leading opposition politician, one who has been the focus of much derision from the governing party.
Yet, if you want to know what’s happening with this yatra, you must look hard to find reports. There are reports, but they are skeletal at best, simply stating the route the yatris are taking and quoting either Gandhi after his daily press conference or some other Congress leaders.
You can also watch the yatra on YouTube on the official feed of the Congress party. Unfortunately, this consists of endless footage of people walking with flags. The camera is always focused on Gandhi who leads from the front. There is no commentary. Every now and then, you see him hug children or the elderly or someone who has been in the news, like the mother and sister of murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh.
But that’s it. You don’t get a sense from these reports of the places the yatra has touched, or of the people watching from the sidelines. Who are they? What are they thinking? Is this just a tamasha they feel they cannot miss? Do they even understand the concept of Bharat Jodo? These are some of the obvious questions that come to mind, especially if you are a journalist reporting on such an event.
But in the mainstream media, much of this remains unanswered.
Instead, the media features the usual discussions on whether the yatra will yield political dividends, whether it will work as a public relations exercise to refurbish Gandhi’s image as he has been frequently accused of not being a serious politician, or why the yatra is spending so many days in one state and not in another. While such speculation is unavoidable given the rapidly declining political stature of the Congress party – and the fact that even if Congress spokespersons insist this is not “Rahul’s yatra”, he is the most obvious focus of it – there is one more reason why the reporting must go beyond this.
For instance, when reporters are sent out to cover elections, they report what politicians say and speculate on the hold of one party or another. But going out into the field also gives them an opportunity to get the pulse of the public, to speak to ordinary people, to understand the issues that concern them, and to convey this to readers. Such reporting has been on the decline in recent years as media houses cut back on investing in news gathering. But there is still enough of it to provide a granular feel of the issues that concern people during an election.
Covering an event like the Bharat Jodo Yatra ought to be seen as a similar opportunity. How many photographs can you keep seeing of Gandhi beaming at some young girl or boy who has rushed up to him (carefully curated, of course), or of his bending down to tie his mother’s or some other yatri’s shoelaces? There is surely more to this yatra than that.
To find such reporting, you must look hard and literally search the net. It is possible, of course, that regional language papers have been giving it more detailed coverage as the yatra traverses these states. And it is more than likely that the Delhi-based “national” media will wake up to it when it hovers closer to the national capital. But so far as mainstream English language newspapers are concerned, the reports with the kind of details one is looking for are so few as to be missed entirely.
As always, the independent digital platforms fill the gap in reporting. For instance, Shoaib Daniyal of Scroll the people walking with Gandhi. The profiles give you a hint of the variety of individuals who must be part of the exercise. He writes: “One of the biggest benefits of reporting on the big political palooza that is the Congress’s cross-country Bharat Jodo Yatra is seeing the diversity of the people who participate in India’s political system.”
, also in Scroll, has greater depth, perhaps because it is written by a non-journalist. Ramani Atkuri is a public health professional based in Bengaluru. She joined the yatra with a group of friends. She explains, “For me, joining the Yatra was a personal protest against the state of the nation today, and a chance to show solidarity with someone standing up against it, especially the hate and divisiveness. It was also a protest against the shrinking of our freedoms. I guess there comes a time we must each stand up and be counted.”
In Karnataka, Dhanya Rajendran of the News Minute has been tracking the yatra. Her reports provide both the political and the larger atmospherics of the yatra, as in . Even though it is essentially an interview with Congress spokesperson Jairam Ramesh, we also hear other voices, both sceptical and supportive.
Occasionally you come across a story that tells you about the places the yatra is passing through. For those not familiar with the southern states, many of these places are just names. Yet each point on the route has a history, sometimes of conflict between religious groups, sometimes between castes. Has there been a negative reaction from the dominant groups here? If so, was there any display of hostility? It would have been interesting to know. But largely, that aspect has remained uncovered by the media.
Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj India is a supporter and participant in the yatra. But he is not a Congress worker. And remains interesting because it explains, perhaps, why so many from civil society, such as Ramani Atkuri quoted above, have set aside their reservations about the Congress party and decided to join the yatra at various stages.
Yadav spells out why he believes the yatra should be viewed as more than a political tamasha. Even if one does not agree with all he writes, his opinion is worth more than a glance. An important point he makes, for instance, is that this is an actual padyatra, where participants, including the leading lights, are physically walking every day up to 26 km. This is unusual as the routine “road shows” by politicians consist of them driving to a spot where the media is present, talking to “ordinary” folk for photo ops, and then driving on. Their feet don’t touch the ground for very long.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra still has a lot of ground to cover. And as I said earlier, it is entirely possible that the so-called “national” media will wake up to it when it enters their territory in the north. But till then, we can read and watch some of the better reporting on the Bharat Jodo Yatra so that it also becomes the Bharat Samjho Yatra.
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