Rahul Gandhi at Thiruvananthapuram | Photo: PTI
The first one-to-one meeting with Vaiko, the MDMK leader was at Thiruvannamalai in 2004. Vaiko was leading a padayatra. A yatra against the 'misrule' of Jayalalithaa. Vaiko alias V Gopalsamy is a puzzle in Tamil politics. There was a time when DMK used to deploy him to mobilise crowds with his unfailing oratory. He was the second in command in DMK just after M Karunanidhi. But MK's son Stalin was rising and MK realised that Vaiko would be a potential threat. The result was the expulsion of Vaiko from DMK in 1993. Vaiko formed a new party and called it Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK). Marumalarchi means revival and renaissance. Vaiko's goal was to replace DMK with his new party. But the party's policies were defined and determined by one idea - Vaiko's proximity and distance from Karunanidhi.
Vaiko was in prison for almost two years just before he kicked off his padayatra in 2004. The then Jayalalithaa regime arrested and incarcerated Vaiko under POTA which was a precursor of the current UAPA. Vaiko's padayatra was a runaway hit. Tamizhakam resonated with the questions that Vaiko raised against the Jaya regime. Vaiko opened a briefcase while talking about his experiences during the yatra. He took out a kerchief from the briefcase and unravelled it. There was a two rupee coin inside the kerchief. ''This is the greatest gift I received during the journey.'' There was immense satisfaction in Vaiko's words. Vaiko used the exact word that Actor Rajnikanth repeats in one of his films to express extreme contentment 'makilchchi'.
A poor old lady gave that two rupee coin to Vaiko. She told him that she had only that much to give. It was a message. A very significant message that people had taken up his yatra as their own. ''India and Tamil Nadu are going to see a big political change,'' Vaiko said, pointing to the coin. Vaiko's predictions turned out to be accurate. The DMK front captured all the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu in that Lok Sabha election. Vaiko led the padayatra for the DMK front forgetting and forgiving all that Karunanidhi did to him. YS Rajasekhara Reddy won Andhra for Congress. The foundation of the first UPA ministry was laid by the victories in these two southern states.
Vaiko's political future was spoiled sooner than later despite the success of the yatra. Vaiko didn't contest in that election. When his party was invited by Manmohan Singh to be part of his cabinet Vaiko couldn't digest someone other than him becoming a central minister. That made him announce that his party would support UPA from outside. It was this decision that weakened his party later. Vaiko quit the DMK camp two years later and joined hands with Jayalalithaa. Standing side by side with Jaya at her Poes Garden residence, Vaiko declared that there were no permanent enemies in politics. Now, after 16 years, Vaiko is almost a spent force in Tamil Nadu politics. Whatever status he enjoys right now is nothing but a gift from his erstwhile bete noire MK Stalin.
Chandrashekar, the young Turk
If Vaiko's padayatra was confined to TN, Chandrashekar went throughout India in 1983. Chandrashekar traversed through 18 states and covered a distance of 4,000 kilometres. Chandrashekar, who was mentored and led by Acharya Narendra Dev and Ram Manohar Lohia joined Congress in 1964 along with Ashok Mehta. The young turks including Chandrashekar, Mohan Dharia and Krishan Kanth were the main backup for Indira Gandhi during her struggles against the syndicate led by Kamaraj. It was the realisation that Indira's destination was not socialism that made Chandrashekar quit Congress and join the bandwagon of JP. When Indira returned to power in 1980, Chandrashekar was the most impressive leader in the opposition.
It was this Chandrashekar, who led the Bharat Yatra to know the pulse of India. The Yatra was phenomenal and created waves across the nation. Chandrashekar's image got a big boost and it was widely expected that he would replace Indira as the PM after the next election. But the brutal assassination of Indira disrupted all these expectations and schemes. Rajiv Gandhi, the young man who was a nobody in Indian politics till then, suddenly became the inspiration and hope of millions of Indians. Chandrashekar was destined to rule India in 1990 for a short period of 7 months with the support of Rajiv's party. Even though he could handle many of the predicaments of India smoothly, Chandrashekar's political future came to a halt then and there.
NT Rama Rao had his rath yatra in the same year. He had a whirlwind tour across Andhra whipping up the self-respect of the Telugus. Rama Rao could capture power in Andhra within one year of starting his party. And the Rath Yatra had a very crucial role in this stupendous achievement. YS Rajasekhara Reddy undertook a massive padayatra before Andhra went to polls in 2004. The way he connected with the people had a tremendous impact as the state voted massively in favour of Congress. When VP Singh unleashed Mandal politics LK Advani spearheaded a rath yatra upholding the mandir politics. Murali Manohar Joshi followed it up with the Ekta Yatra, which strengthened BJP structurally and ideologically. And let us not forget the fact that it was the role Modi played in these two yatras that paved the way for his rise in BJP.
The Warning by Ananthamurthy
The history of these yatras must be there in front of Rahul, as he has started his mission from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. But, it is not clear if he has indeed grasped the meaning and relevance of these yatras in Indian political history. It was UR Ananthamurthy, who pronounced in 2013 that he would leave India if Modi came to power in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. He said that if Modi got power India would be under the grip of fear. The Indian people rejected Murthy's warning and voted Modi and Co to power. Murthy didn't leave India because of this. But unfortunately, he had to bid goodbye to this world itself on August 22, 2014, just three months after Modi assumed power.
Rahul and Congress point out that Murthy's prediction has come true. ''India now stands polarised, fear is very much palpable. There must be a strong movement to resist the ideology of hatred and fear-mongering.'' Even Mamata Banerjee won't have two opinions on the goals and means of Rahul. The predicament is that the yatra is led by none other than Rahul. Don't think that one is trying to trivialise the entire episode. It has been proven beyond doubt that Rahul is no match for Modi. Still, Congress is orbiting around the Gandhi family.
Those who love this country passionately won't have any doubt as to what Modi and Co are doing to the pluralism and secularism which form the basis of this great nation. RSS is planning to celebrate its centenary in another three years. The Sangh is very much clear in its vision to fulfil the aspirations and ideals of VD Savarkar and Golwalker in that golden moment. RSS is not led by short-term projects. The Sangh knew exactly what it did when it sent the comparatively unknown Modi to Gujarat in 2001 to replace Keshubhai Patel. When the Sangh walked along with Modi from the Gujarat of 2002 to the Indraprastha of 2014, its calculations were precise and accurate.
The one and only original
The present-day BJP is an entirely different party. It is not the BJP that was stunned by the tremendous performance of the Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi in 1984. The record of having just two seats in the Lok Sabha is now a thing of the past. Today's BJP is a behemoth that is flying over the shoulders of Hindutva, generously funded by Corporate India. Machines have no heart. They are controlled by meticulously planned brains. If Congress wants to take on such a huge machine then the party must undergo a deep makeover that radically changes its structure and vision. The time demands not a leader who says that he is a janeudhari brahmin, who pampers different religious heads on his journey.
Nehru never walked through such a road. He and his daughter Indira never sought the help of stilts. They were original. Rahul and Priyanka are only photocopies. The copies can never replace the original.
Modi and BJP capitalise mostly on the divided Opposition. BJP got 38% of the votes in the 2019 election. Delhi, Bihar, Bengal, Punjab, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are ruled by non-BJP governments. BJP faces formidable opposition parties in these states. It is not the lack of opposition but the division among the opposition that is helping Modi and the BJP. If Congress wants to block the victory march of the BJP it must, first of all, initiate the opposition jodo yatra. The Congress must also build up strong regional party structures in each state.
The only state where Congress had a formidable regional leader was Andhra. YSR had an independent existence in his state that defied the high command. But since the time of Indira, the Congress's high command has never tolerated any such leaders regionally. All it wants is total loyalty toward the Gandhi family. Nehru, who could take on leaders like Patel, Rajaji and JB Kripalni is a golden chapter in the history of Congress. Now the party is led by leaders who suffer from an inferiority complex that is hell bound to nip any upcoming strong leaders at the state level. Simply remember how the party high command denied permission to place the dead body of Narasimha Rao inside the AICC headquarters for the public to pay tributes. It is the same insecurity feeling that turned the high command against Jagan Mohan in Andhra. The same weakness of the high command has now led to the party's decline in Punjab.
Congress and its investment in Rahul
Rahul is well-intentioned and good at heart. He wants to serve his country by all means. But the party needs not a college union chairman but a leader. There is a breathtakingly incisive observation by Shiv Visvanathan, the social scientist about Rahul.
Shiv wrote this in 2013 when Rahul was getting ready to take on Modi in the national arena: ''I remember the first time I watched him from close quarters. It was at an IRMA (Institute of Rural Management, Anand) meeting in Gujarat. He listened studiously, his body language was respectful, and he met all the right people and yet there was something disappointing in the way he spoke. At the age of forty, he gave the speech of an awed twenty-year-old, announcing respectfully that he was the youngest person in the room. ''Rahul spoke like a twenty-year-old when he was really older by two decades. It is the same twenty-year-old Rahul, that we are witnessing right now at the forefront of the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
There are many such people who refuse to grow. Look at the writers in Malayalam who came after Madhavikkutty, OV Vijayan and MP Narayana Pillai, who deconstructed the sense and sensibility of Malayalam literature. Almost all the new writers are still writing for college magazines. They think that shocking is the aim of their lives. Rahul represents this crop of writers. He would jump into the deep sea all of a sudden while travelling in a fishing boat.
Remember Rahul, who got into the suburban train in Mumbai challenging the Thackerays. Remember Rahul, who tore away the copy of the ordinance brought out by the Manmohan Singh Govt. There is a shadow of Rajiv Gandhi, who summarily dismissed AP Venkateswaran, the then foreign secretary in a press meet in 1987, lingering over Rahul. Shocking has a very short life span. Politics can't just be shrunk to these shockings. Politics demands 24/7 attention and involvement.
There have been attempts to compare this yatra to Gandhiji's Dandi Yatra. ''History repeats. First as tragedy then as farce,'' said Karl Marx. One is tempted to correct this in the context of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. The tragedy of history becoming a farce straight away!
Congress's investment in Rahul has been huge. There is no other leader in whom Congress has invested more in recent times. But what has Congress received in return? Rahul had realised this when he stepped down from the post of Congress president in 2019. But Rahul himself failed to make that moment historical. He could have converted it into one of the most defining moments in the history of Congress. But the coterie around him simply didn't provide any chances for such a radical change. Sonia's stubborn stand that the scion of the Gandhi family must lead the Congress at any cost made the fall quicker. Even though Rahul resisted from being anointed as the top leader of the party, he found it quite comfortable to enjoy power without any responsibility. So, during the last three years, Rahul remained the last word in almost all the crucial decisions, but he could no longer be held accountable for any of these decisive actions. This is the paradox, the trap that Congress has fallen into. Now, Congress is at the threshold of the election for a new president. Rahul has made it clear that the new president must be from outside the family. Then why is he insisting that he himself should lead this yatra.
What time tells Congress
Congress must first set the ground ready for a just and fair election for the party president. It should bear in mind the contest the British conservative party witnessed for its top post. Lis Truss was elected through a democratic process that is worth emulating. But if the high command is aiming to have one of its puppets elected, then that would be the beginning of the end of Congress. Congress must have waited for the new president to assume charge. If Congress was really sincere in giving a new life to the party, it should have asked the new president to lead this yatra. Then it would have become a real Bharat Jodo Yatra, that would go on to capture the mind and imagination of the Indian people.
But now the yatra has become an exercise to endorse the hegemony of the Gandhi family. It is a question indeed why the Yatra is not touching Gujarat, the biggest exhibition hall of Hindutva in the country. The transformation of Gujarat from the land of Gandhi and Patel into the land of Modi and Shah marks one of the most significant periods in Indian history. One must recall here the critique of RB Sreekumar, the former DGP of Gujarat, that the country has come to such a disastrous stage thanks to the soulless secularism of the Congress.
Democracy means the rule of the majority. But democracy becomes meaningful and relevant when it stands to protect its minorities. It is this fundamental principle that is challenged in a big way in contemporary India. There can never be any compromise on the part of Congress in its stand on secularism. Congress should not think twice to pronounce that it will stand in solidarity with the oppressed and the suppressed any time, anywhere.
'To Kill A Democracy: India's Passage to Despotism' is a seminal work by Debasish Roy Choudhury and John Keane, which substantially describes the way democracy suffers in India. But they end the book on a note of hope. ''When going gets really rough, democracy fosters hope against hope.'' Debasish made it further clearer in an interview that India's DNA is democracy and that is why a military rule is an impossibility in this part of the sub-continent.
The anti-democratic viruses target the mutation of this DNA. Time demands Congress to defend this DNA. Democracy means eternal hope. The Bharat Jodo Yatra should have reflected this beacon of hope. Instead, It has now no goal other than endorsing the supremacy of the Gandhi family. Both history and time are intensely looking at Congress. But it pains those who love democracy that the grand old party is failing to read the writings on the wall.