A slice of life from the party’s 3,500-km trek across India.
The writer is a Congress leader participating in the Bharat Jodo Yatra. He is a member of the national executive committee of the party’s social media department.
On the fourteenth day, we rest.
The Bharat Yatri camp is quiescent. It changes location every day, providing a nomadic home to the 120-odd cadre spearheading what is possibly the Congress party’s most ambitious mass contact programme – a crowd-pulling, cadre-mobilising, media-blitzing 3,500-km walk across India.
As the walkers move, so does the camp. And on the fourteenth day, we’re a few kilometres northeast of the coastal city of Kochi.
Occasionally, you hear a song playing on some distant cellphone, the ever-popular Kisi Ki Muskarahaton Pe Ho Nisar. You’d expect there to be some action, some noise, in a campside housing participants, including Rahul Gandhi, across 60-plus mobile homes and toilets. But there’s mostly silence. Unlike the previous days, there’s no crush of marchers struggling to get formation, no long lines of sloganeering cadres, no crowds lining the sidewalks.
Some 330 km into its journey, the yatra is taking a scheduled day of rest.
The writer with Sachin Pilot.
Nandita Hooda, a former judo champion from Chandigarh.
It’s 7 am on September 7 at the Vivekananda Polytechnic College in Kanyakumari.
You can’t plan for everything. Jairam Ramesh, MP and general secretary of the Congress, knows this well. He’s spent gruelling, draining months leading the planning for this moment, what he calls “a day when India’s oldest political party will launch the longest padyatra ever”.
It’s the first day, the first morning, the first moment of our 3,500-km trek across 12 union states and two union territories. We’re inside a high-security restricted camp. A neat row of 60 flatbed mounted containers form our overnight sleeping spaces. A cavernous tented contraption forms our dining hall, while a flagpole in the centre ties these elements together.
Just outside is a crush of media and crowds. You can hear drums, chants and slogans in the distance. Inside, it’s still, like the eye of a cyclone.
Some 120 yatris and an array of Congress heavyweights, Rahul Gandhi included, are clustered around the flagpole. There’s a flag-raising ceremony, Vande Mataram and the national anthem are sung. Soon, Gandhi moves ahead and outside.
The yatris, in serried ranks of dazzling white, want to go with him. You can almost taste their energy and anticipation – they’ve spent months applying and preparing and planning for this moment.
But, as we know too well, you can’t plan for everything. There’s a slight, almost unnoticed, wrinkle. “Star yatri” Kanhaiya Kumar doesn’t want to get into formation. He’s standing to the side, arms folded.
I sidle up to him and ask what’s going on. “I refuse to be imposed upon in any way, shape or form,” says the man who, a few years ago, was jailed for refusing to be imposed upon in any way, shape or form by the government of India. “I’ll march all right, but will not get into a formation, nor wear a uniform.”
He adds helpfully, “That’s why I left the communists too.”
The other yatris are, of course, in whites and in formation. But this is nothing major, not a headline moment for those who’d love a quick and easy controversy. It’s just one of the many quirky, inspiring, frustrating, draining, exhilarating moments that comprise this long journey.
Hours later, I meet Kumar on the road, walking and chanting slogans with the best of them. In the days ahead, he will prove to be an inspirational, unique individual who marches to the beat of his own drum.
Finally, we move.
Like a cork popping out of a champagne bottle, we squeeze through the gates onto the adjoining road. And all mayhem breaks loose.
MP Digvijaya Singh is already barking commands at individual yatris. “Please line up there!”, “Get out of the way of the vehicles”, and so on. But it’s hard to make out individual words, such is the noise.
There seem to be thousands of people lining the roads. Party workers yelling and gesticulating, families on their verandahs or on the streets, bemused and excited as they watch this kilometres-long caravan of colour, movement and noise. Media teams frantically scurry back and forth. Within a few hundred metres, it’s hard to maintain any semblance of marching order. It’s harder still to comprehend the magnitude of it.
Scenes from the yatra.
Yatris on the road in Kerala.
We walk, even rush, along the Panvel-Kochi-Kanyakumari highway via a lush, humid countryside, jagged mountains looming in the distance. Our pace increases, slackens, then speeds up again. Sometimes you find yourself with a group of flag-waving students from Puducherry. At other times, you see Jairam Ramesh giving a TV interview on the fly. Poet and Rajya Sabha MP Imran Pratapgarhi is up ahead – they’re all chanting something but it’s impossible to hear. Sachin Rao, the party’s head of training, is walking barefoot.
In what seems like a very short time, but is actually over two hours, we arrive at the midday resting point – under the red-tiled roof of SMSM Higher Secondary School in Suchindram where once long ago Gandhiji arrived and signed the visitors’ book.
Inside the school, Digvijaya Singh is surrounded by a crowd, exchanging pleasantries with Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel. Across the school courtyard, politician and activist Yogendra Yadav is holding court. MPs and political elite rub shoulders with journalists and local cadre. Some yatris stretch out on classroom benches, or even the floor, resting before the evening march.
In the late afternoon, we resume the journey. Hundreds of people are lined outside the school gates. The drumbeats start all over again, as does the singing and chanting. You don’t need to understand Tamil to be hypnotised by the beat and cadence of the slogans. Under a slowly darkening sky, we reach Nagercoil.
So ends Day 1.
One down, 149 to go.
For the yatris, the next few days quickly settle into the blur of an increasingly familiar routine: get up at 4-5 am, breakfast at 5.30-6 am, stand in formation for the unfurling of the national flag, sing the national anthem, start the morning march at 7 am.
This ends at 10 am and then walkers get a break. At 4 pm, they start walking again for three hours, breaking by 7 pm.
Repeat the next day, and the next.
Places and kilometres pass by. We’ve crossed from Tamil Nadu to Kerala – Cheruvarakonam, Parassala junction, Thiruvananthapuram, Kazhakuttam, Kallambalam.
By the time we reach Kollam on the evening of Day 7, the yatris have begun to emerge as individual faces with unique experiences. After all, they’re in this together for the next five months.
The data is out there. The yatris have an average age of 38. One-third are women. High-profile names include Rahul Gandhi, Digvijaya Singh, Pawan Khera and Kanhaiya Kumar.
But it runs deeper than that. Together, they represent every single one of India’s states and union territories.
There are yatris whose highest educational qualification is Class 10. There are others like Avani Bansal from Delhi who has a law degree from Harvard. (And one from Oxford too but hey, who’s keeping score?)
There’s Nandita Hooda, a former judo champion from Chandigarh, who’s played at the Asian Commonwealth level. Satyam Thakur is a commercial pilot who flew in the United States for over five years. Aditya Bhagat is a tech businessman presently designing a Bharat Jodo app.
There are first-generation politicians like Jyoti Rautela from Uttarakhand, marching alongside Chandy Oommen, whose father is a doyen of national and state politics. Sitaram Lamba is chairman of the Rajasthan Youth Board who “could have sat in an office chair but if people like me don’t contribute to the yatra, who will?”
Avani Bansal, a yatri from Delhi.
Aditya Bhagat, a tech businessman presently designing a Bharat Jodo app.
Sitaram Lamba, chairman of the Rajasthan Youth Board.
Chandy Oommen, son of political heavyweight Oommen Chandy.
They come from everywhere – the Mahila Congress, Youth Congress, National Students’ Union of India, Congress Seva Dal and, of course, the main party. What’s common to these yatris is that together, they represent the organisational and ideological core of the Congress.
And they’re also hard-nosed politicians. Sachin Rao, national head of training and an MBA graduate from MIT Sloan, highly regarded as a Gandhian figure in the party, is engaged in organisation-building work. At the other end of the spectrum is Gayathri R from Coimbatore, a three-time corporator who is deeply immersed in electoral politics.
“I want to engage people from different communities, have new experiences,” she says on why she’s a yatri. “But the people we meet are also voters!”
The commitment to the yatra and the ideas it espouses runs deep among participants. But they are also aware of the benefits, such as direct, continuous access to national leaders like Digvijaya Singh and Jairam Ramesh. Over the next five months, each yatri will get 15 minutes of walking time with Rahul Gandhi, maybe even a conversation or two with him at the secluded camp dinners. They’ll get a shot at fame on state or national TV, and forge bonds to build a national, high-powered professional network of peers.
All of these have made being a yatri a highly-valued position. The competition has been fierce.
Days 7 to 14: A diary of pain
It’s 9.30 pm on Day 10. Darkness has fallen over the almost completely silent campsite at the NTPC grounds in Haripad. Most yatris are already sleeping the sleep of the dead – it’s been another long day of walking that started at Karunagapally, more than 20 km away.
A member of our core team of photographers walks into our shared container. walks into our shared container. He strips down to shorts, stretches, winces, and applies liberal doses of Moov spray over his legs and back. He winces again. Minutes later, he’s fast asleep.
I barely notice, I’m too busy googling “plantar fasciitis”, “heel pain” “sole pain”. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
We’re walking 20 to 30 km a day, sometimes through a drizzle such as Day 3’s trek between Mulagamoodu to Marthandam, or in searing heat like the 15-km stretch from Cherthala to Kuthiathode on Day 12. We’re negotiating geographies, cultures and languages, alongside our personal landscapes of pain.
The first day’s walk, from the outskirts of Kanyakumari to Nagercoil, was easy. Almost anyone can do 20-plus km if they only have to do it once. Plus, there was a sense of camaraderie, excitement and purpose. The second day’s walk – over 20 km to Mulagamoodu – was just about okay too. It was mostly flat land, except for a minor winding stretch entering Kerala.
Inside a mobile treatment vehicle accompanying the yatra.
By Day 7 or 8, several yatris are limping.
A day’s progress.
But the journey goes on and on. By Day 7 or 8, you can see some people beginning to limp perceptibly. Sometimes it’s only a slight, but noticeable, difference in gait; in others, it’s the set facial expression, or the way they slump over during afternoon rest periods. The soles of the feet are the first to go, with blisters a common feature. Some yatris have blisters within blisters.
“Ninety percent of the complaints are feet related,” says Dr Arun, a volunteer medical professional who is accompanying the yatra all the way. But fevers, backaches and symptoms of dehydration are also making their presence felt.
This is how it feels to walk with giant blisters every day: The first half-km is sheer agony. Then the blood begins to move and the pain dulls until the seven- or eight-km mark. The last three or four km are a world of hurt. A yatri from Karnataka thought his feet were sweating inside his soles. It turned out to be blood.
But 14 days later, some have gotten used to the pace. KK Shastri, a yatri from Uttar Pradesh, says “8-10 km don’t feel that unusual anymore”. But he’s not yet the majority. Some are recovering, but slowly. Others, like Vaibhav Walia from Uttarakhand, were fine until a few days ago when blisters made their appearance. Vaibhav is now “walking step by step, one step at a time”.
“Just don’t give up,” says Digvijaya Singh to all yatris. “Move on. It is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Just outside Thiruvananthapuram, I catch up with Pradeep Ror, a yatri from Haryana. He’s walking very slowly, at perhaps the six-km point of the day’s 20-km journey. A slow-moving vehicle bumped into him. It’s nothing, but he may have pulled a muscle.
“I look at the ambulance and cars around me,” he tells me. “It would be so easy to just ask for a ride. But if I break now, I’ll always break.”
So, he keeps going. We all do.
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