From the Pathankot highway on the outskirts of Jammu, the sight of shipping containers and floodlights suggests you’re looking at an industrial complex. Peer a little closer, though, and you realise you’re looking at a camp of enthusiastic Congress workers who have walked 128 days to get here.
This is the Congress’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, finally in Jammu in the last leg of its journey. The four and a half month march will end with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi hoisting the tricolour in Srinagar on January 30.
At dawn on January 22, participants and sundry supporters began preparing for the day’s march. One side of the highway was cordoned off and young men in white jackets, with the yatra’s branding, warmed up and stretched for the long trek to follow.
The march began at 7 am with Gandhi, dressed in his signature white t-shirt and black trousers, leading the charge. An hour later, the tail end of the procession was populated with stragglers struggling to keep up.
The marchers were on their way but were there witnesses to their journey?
The yatra drew large crowds in other states and union territories but in Kathua district, there was only a feeble expression of support after a rousing reception turned sour when a key local mobiliser of the crowd, Choudhary Lal Singh, was snubbed.
A former Congress leader, Singh joined the Bharatiya Janata Party amid the Modi wave and won his Basohli constituency seat in Kathua district. He also served as a minister in the last elected government before falling out with the BJP.
Kathua is where an eight-year-old Bakarwali girl was raped and murdered in 2018. A protest here in February 2018 in support of the accused polarised the region and cemented rightwing sentiments. Last week, a after Singh, who supported the accused, joined the Bharat Jodo Yatra at Lakhanpur.
So, in Kathua, it was clear that the bulk of marchers comprised security forces, Congress workers and supporters from outside Jammu and Kashmir.
But things turned around as Gandhi marched into Samba within the hour. Rajinder Sharma, a retired principal from Chanori village, stood near the highway, clutching a walking stick for support. A plastic table was set up next to him with a photo of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Sharma told this reporter that he and a dozen others were in attendance to congratulate Rahul Gandhi on his “return to the soil of his forefathers”. Rahul Gandhi has Kashmiri Pandit ancestry.
“Rahul Gandhi is working hard and he will get the fruits soon,” Sharma said. “He will become the prime minister of India.”
It’s this belief – that Gandhi will, or should, soon hold the reins of the country – that has led to supporters walking with Gandhi since the march began on September 8 last year. Others have stepped in along the way, like Faisal Choudhary who joined the yatra at Delhi’s border.
A farmer from Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut, Choudhary has gained fame as Gandhi’s lookalike, with many along the way mistakenly showering him with petals and greeting him with warm embraces. A third-generation Congress worker, he said he began wearing a white t-shirt and grew his beard to look more like Gandhi.
“I left all my work to come here,” he said. “It’s a big thing for a small farmer like me but I am doing it for the party – the party’s work is like my own work. My income has stopped but it is also important to support the party.”
What has he learned since he joined the yatra? “That there is no hatred among the people of this country,” he said. “It is only among those who watch the TV channels that spread hatred. The yatra is awakening people to this reality.”
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Rahul Gandhi lookalike Faisal Choudhary.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra in Samba.
Talk of the town
The Bharat Jodo Yatra is a major political event in Jammu and Kashmir amid the central government’s repressive control over the region. Gandhi and other party leaders have repeatedly criticised the bureaucratic administration headed by lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha as being indifferent to the plight of the people.
Addressing his supporters near Jammu city on January 23, Gandhi said, “In Jammu, the people of Jammu would do business. Jammu and Kashmir was run by the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Today, outsiders are running Jammu and Kashmir. The administration doesn’t pay heed to our rights and voices.”
He also expressed his “surprise” at how Sinha treated a delegation of protesting Kashmiri Pandits, who were displaced from the valley in the 1990s by the militancy and are now facing targeted attacks by militants.
“The LG told a delegation of Kashmiri Pandits ‘you should not beg’. They are not begging, they are demanding their rights,” he said. “If you want to do something, you should apologise to them.”
He made no mention of the 2019 abrogation of Article 370. However, he said he and his party would “use its full strength” to restore statehood to the erstwhile state.
Gandhi’s presence in the region and his opposition to the governing BJP has given new hope to young party workers. “Everyone has been intimidated by the BJP. They are a government of hooliganism,” said Usman Bagwan, a Youth Congress leader from Kishtwar. “The yatra has charged the youth with a newfound passion.”
Bagwan travelled over 200 km to be part of the yatra. “The BJP is imposing new black laws on the people every day,” he said. “Article 370 was removed. It was a black day for us. We were lathi-charged and detained. But we won’t bow down. We love our country and want to live together. We are just waiting for the arrival of our leader.”
These sentiments were echoed by Javed Lone, the party’s district president in Bhaderwah. “The passion with which he is walking, people are joining, rising above faith and class,” he said of Gandhi. “We should take a lesson that if a towering personality like Rahul Gandhi is walking on foot for 3,500 km, nobody can stop us from walking in our booths and blocks. We will walk and strengthen the party at the grassroots.”
Moreover, Lone said Gandhi has disproved critics who once called him names. “The image he has been associated with – he has proved he is not what you call him...Activism will be recharged and all political parties will soon be seen on the ground. The pressure will automatically mount on the LG administration to restart the political process.”
As of January 23, the yatra is in Jammu district and is expected to cover Banihal, the gateway to Kashmir, on Republic Day. There, district president Imad Wani is impatiently waiting for the procession to arrive.
“There have been political activities going on but nothing big of this sort,” he told this reporter over the phone, adding that the Congress has mobilised all volunteers in the district while also receiving support from other regional parties.
On Gandhi, Wani said, “If the next prime minister is himself walking and coming to the people to talk to them, to understand their problems, then youth leaders of the party can learn a big lesson. We have to go to people in our constituencies and blocks to speak to them about their problems.”
Wani said the yatra has not only renewed vigour among party workers, particularly the youth, but has also given hope to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. “By telling the people that a powerful person is with them, he is the nation’s voice and the common person’s voice,” he said. “It is giving us hope.”
But all is not as promising as this sounds. Despite simmering resentment against the BJP here, the Congress still failed to ensure broader participation in the yatra. Gandhi voiced the region’s main issues – unemployment, lack of statehood, fresh eviction orders – but local party functionaries dropped the ball in mobilising the public.
“Whatever the potential on the ground, the Congress lacks the organisation to execute this,” said an analyst on condition of anonymity. “The moment the yatra crossed Lakhanpur, the local organising capacity had little result on the ground.” Until January 19, he said, the local BJP had been nervous. But no longer, because “there were more people participating from Punjab and Kashmir than locals of Jammu”.
He blamed it on two factors: complacency by the J&K Congress and mishandling of Choudhary Lal Singh as the yatra entered J&K. Lal Singh was not allowed on stage with Gandhi and other regional leaders. Other prominent Congress leaders had left the party to side with Ghulam Nabi Azad, he said, and Lal Singh – now unpopular due to his support of the Kathua rapists – “is the only regional force against the BJP”.
The analyst also pointed at nepotism within the Congress. Leaders like Yogesh Sahni and Raman Bhalla “used the yatra to launch their sons into politics. The efforts they made to ensure their children walked with Rahul Gandhi and that it was covered by the local press – it would have been more effective to get popular local intellectuals and writers and other celebrities.”
The analyst also cited “intimidation” by the BJP. “The BJP created a very aggressive environment to send out the message that it’s not fair if you participate in the Bharat Jodo Yatra,” he said. “Local people don’t want to be seen walking with the yatra because they fear reprisals.”
Several BJP leaders in Jammu and Kashmir – such as Ravinder Raina, Devendra Rana, and union minister of state Jitendra Singh – had criticised the yatra. Rana called the Congress the “B-Team” of the People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration, a regional political alliance that his party has derided as the “Gupkar gang”.
The analyst compared the yatra to the runup to the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, when Gandhi launched the “chowkidar chor hai” campaign against the BJP. “The number of people angry with the BJP doesn’t necessarily mean they are seeking the Congress. They don’t believe the Congress can be a refuge,” he said. “If the Congress has to take votes, it has to be from Jammu. But their hopes are pinned on Kashmir where they don’t have a vote bank.”
And therein lies the heart of the issue, he said, that the Congress views Jammu merely as a “route” while Kashmir is its “destination”.
Tarun Upadhyay, a senior journalist based in Jammu, said it’s evident the yatra missed a strong current, but that’s also because the Congress has been out of power for a long time, and its future is uncertain.
“But this doesn’t mean we can rule out the undercurrent,” he said, adding that Jammu has traditionally been a Congress bastion. “It can re-emerge anytime.”
On Gandhi, Upadhyay said there’s been a “shedding of his princeling image, with him showing people he is one among them”. Gandhi also struck a chord with Jammu by raising critical issues of retrieval of stateland, statehood, and trade – the backbone of Jammu’s economy – being overtaken by outsiders.
“A pan-India party making a Jammu-centric statement does connect with the Jammu region,” he said, “but it's the job of the ground worker to amplify that.”
He added that there’s a growing realisation in Jammu that the LG doesn’t even listen to the local BJP and that outsiders are calling the shots. So, contesting this would strike a chord with the public.
“Even if their government is formed, it will still be controlled by outsiders. People are already saying Jammu is becoming like UP and Bihar, which people won’t accept,” he said. “We don’t want a model of UP and Bihar and people from there calling the shots here.”
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