150 days, 3,500 kilometres and 12 states. As Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo yatra enters its third leg in Karnataka, the first BJP-ruled state on the Kanyakumari-to-Kashmir journey, News18 walks along to decode what is fuelling the Congress leader and scores of others on the arduous march. In this series, we speak to Rahul Gandhi’s fellow yatris and locals to gauge the mood, and analyse the political and electoral impact of the padyatra.
Imagine waking up at 5am for 150 days, traversing through the country on foot while living out of a mobile container, meeting scores of people along the 3,500-km journey. Rahul Gandhi doesn’t have to imagine it, for the Congress leader and more than 100 others marching with him have been living this rigour for the last few weeks and will continue to for the weeks to come.
News18 spent a day walking with Rahul Gandhi during the Karnataka leg of his Bharat Jodo yatra.
The day begins at 5am. After a quick morning routine, which includes physiotherapy for his strained knees, Rahul is one of the first yatris to assemble and participate in the daily flag hoisting ceremony at 6am.
Punctual and determined, Rahul prepares to embark on the first leg of the day’s walkathon. The padyatra usually begins at the campsite where the team rested for the night. Once the senior leaders who join Rahul on the padyatra assemble, the caravan sets off on a fast-paced walk. Many leaders can, at first, match pace with the Wayanad MP, but soon, some of them who are 60+ drop to a more comfortable, slower pace.
“He is very perceptive and instinctively slows down for us. He is extremely fit as you can see. He covers 18 to 20 km every day. It is not just his fitness that drives him. He says that the people and a very special force drives him each day to step out and walk,” says a senior Congress leader who has been part of the yatra since Kanyakumari.
The people who are gathered around watch the fast-paced yet smiling Congress leader with the hope that they can also walk with him. It is not easy to get close as security cover for Rahul Gandhi is high. His special security holds onto a long rope that helps in crowd control around the leader.
Even as the day progresses and the sunlight gets harsher, people gather along the route to wave to and, hopefully, meet Rahul Gandhi. While he smiles and waves at the crowds, he discreetly calls a few visitors to meet them. His hand on their shoulders, he walks while asking them questions about what they do and what their problems are. Sometimes he just keeps walking with them, especially if the chosen ones are enthusiastic children.
“Walking with Rahul Gandhi is not easy. At the end of the day, he is as fresh as he was in the morning. Maybe I will acquire it when I continue this padyatra. The enthusiasm is there and people give him and all of us a lot of energy. What is important is that Rahul Gandhi is actually listening to the people, while some others only pretend to do so,” says senior Congress leader Pawan Khera.
Empathy & Emotional Connect
So how does he identify people from the crowd? Senior Congress leader KC Venugopal, one of Rahul Gandhi’s constant walking partners, says he has some special connection and magic.
“It is magical how he can identify a person who he wants to meet. He knows whom to call and every single time, whoever he has called, has been a deserving person. He says a person who understands hurt can always see it in others and that is how he is pulled towards a particular person in need of help,” Venugopal tells News18.
“A woman who was 80-years-old came running to meet him in Thiruvananthapuram. She had run 2km, and in that crowd, he saw her and called her. He gave her water or else she would have fainted. There so many such incidents, such is his draw towards the people,” he adds.
“He is doing this for the people of the country, to hear them, find solutions, and in the end, I am sure he will come out with a vision for India which is connected with the real India, which no other leader can boast of. At the end of this yatra, he would have learned so much more.”
The yatra has been a huge learning curve for Rahul Gandhi, not to mention a big sacrifice as well, Venugopal further says.
“I know how close Rahul ji is to his mother. He cannot be without seeing her for long and this yatra is long. He is very attached to her. That may be the reason why Sonia Gandhi also decided to come here to be with him and support him. This is apart from the fact that she is the Congress president and is participating in the padyatra,” Venugopal adds.
Walking more than 600km has had a toll on Rahul Gandhi’s knees which were already carrying injuries from football sessions.
“My knees were paining, but then a young girl came and gave me a letter. I carry it in my pocket. It is very inspirational and suddenly all the pain was gone,” he is heard saying in a video after finishing the Kerala leg of the tour.
The first break for tea and snacks takes place a couple of hours after the padyatra resumed for the day. It is here that Rahul Gandhi is seen meeting people in tea stalls or roadside hotels and interacting with locals.
He strikes up a conversation, asking their names, what they do and soon enough many join in to discuss issues like unemployment and inflation, and sometimes share their personal experiences.
When language becomes a barrier, local Congress leaders help with translations. Notes are taken on issues that need to be highlighted and Rahul is seen offering advice as well.
From around 11am till 4pm, the yatris break for lunch and rest.
After a quick lunch, the Congress leader is scheduled to interact with various groups, including families of those who died during the Covid-19 pandemic, tribal representatives like the Soligas, young intellectuals, theatre artistes, and writers.
“He expressed his solidarity with the families of the Chamarajanagar tragedy. They requested him to give the surviving families government jobs and compensation. Rahul ji told them that they would be given their due respect and opportunities may be provided once the Congress returns to power. He met with the tribal leaders and they also expressed how the Forest Rights Act has not been well-implemented, among other issues,” Chairman of the KPCC communication wing and MLA Priyank Kharge tells News18.
In another meeting, Gandhi meets young theatre artistes and singers who tell him that a “certain ideology” seems to be sought in their work.
“They said how they were losing friends if they have a particular leaning or ideology. They are being forced to unlearn what they have learned all their lives — being open, multicultural and constitutional. Their voices are being suppressed, a certain ideology is being forced down and it is affecting their work and livelihood,” says Kharge.
At the meeting, Rahul Gandhi advises them to be patient and tolerant.
“He told them that some people come from a hateful background. For them, shedding blood is easy and hate is what they live on. That is something we need to stop. It can only be achieved if people work unitedly, peacefully,” adds Kharge, sharing details of the interaction.
After a couple of sessions, the padyatra resumes for the last leg of the day.
While walking from Begur in Chamarajanagar district towards Thandavpura, a group of young boys are called upon to walk beside Rahul Gandhi. When asked about the experience, they say they were so awestruck that they could not speak.
Just then, a young Puli Kali (tiger dance) artiste from Kerala walk joyously to this reporter. He is thrilled as Rahul Gandhi hugged him and asked him how he was doing.
“He asked my name and wished me. That was huge and so warm,” says Jaishankar who has come from Thrissur to be a part of the yatra and entertain people with the traditional dance.
The Local Flavour
Rahul Gandhi’s love for local snacks is quite evident as he ensures he tastes them along the way. From Kerala’s famous parippu wadas (dal-based vadas), pazham pori (Banana fritters), unniyappams (fried sweet) to Karnataka’s maddur vada and capsicum-potato -onion bajji (batter-fried capsicum, potato and onion rings), Rahul has relished every one of them.
The owners of Vishnu Inn, a quaint hotel in Nanjangud, were pleasantly surprised when they heard that they would be serving tea and snacks to Rahul Gandhi and his fellow travellers.
Bhagirathi and Venugopal Nair have been running the hotel for three decades. “A quick check by the police and SPG team was done and they asked to keep the place clean. They asked us if the electricity would go and we told them we had generator backup. The police team asked us to keep four plates of onion, capsicum and potato bajjis ready with tea,” the couple tell News18, breaking into a wide grin.
“It happened so fast. He appreciated the food and asked for a locally available energy drink. He has to remain hydrated as he is walking such long distances, right?” says Varun Venugopal who manages the hotel.
After the pit stop for tea, the entourage begins walking again. It is during this leg that the crowds increase and many join the yatris for a short distance to express solidarity. As they near their next campsite and halt for the day, people continue to wait with the hope that they would be able to catch a glimpse of him again.