Editor’s Note: Manish Khanduri (@manishkhanduri1) is a member of the Indian National Congress political party. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
By the time he had walked 400 kilometers in the wet and humid Indian monsoon season, the soles of Vaibhav Walia’s feet were covered in giant blisters. His colleague, Lhingkim Haokip, had been diagnosed with a minor fracture in her leg. Walking alongside them, I experienced something I’d never previously heard of — blisters developing inside my blisters. Every step was beyond agony.
All of us kept walking. We had a long way to go.
Walia, 36, Haokip, 48 and I are members of India’s oldest political party, the Indian National Congress. Along with tens of thousands of party cadre, we were part of the Bharat Jodo Yatra (Unite India March), a marathon trek on foot across the length of India, with a route totaling over 4,000 kilometers. Party member Rahul Gandhi, a fellow walker, has emerged as the face of the yatra, attracting intense interest and much media coverage.
Gandhi, 52, a Congressman and former party leader, is the great-grandson of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, grandson of the nation’s first female Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and son of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and former Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi.
(As an aside, I note that a common complaint among yatris has been that the man walks too fast, making life tough for everyone around him who’d prefer a more reasonable pace.)
The journey began on September 7, 2022, in the southernmost part of the country, Trivandrum — “where the three oceans meet.” Over 136 days, yatris traversed 12 states and 2 union territories, following scenic routes along the Arabian Sea and through the fabled Western Ghat mountain ranges. We walked through desolate countryside and congested cities; on national highways and village mud tracks; in 35 degree Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) temperatures and the freezing cold of the Himalayas.
In the Indian tradition, the word ‘Yatra’ is closely associated with religious and political tradition — in Hindu culture, ‘tirtha yatra’ is a journey to a sacred place, with the physical suffering endured along the way seen as an affirmation of devotion. The 8th century Indian sage, Vedic scholar and teacher Adi Shankaracharya walked across India to establish multiple religious centers. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi led the iconic Salt march, a walk of 385 kilometers, to trigger the hugely popular civil disobedience movement.
Our Bharat Jodo Yatra is an ambitious attempt to follow in the footsteps of these illustrious peers — and, like them, help remake India.
The Yatra is the centerpiece of a multi-pronged strategy the Indian National Congress is deploying to revitalize its base and attract new voters. Every day we covered 20-30 kilometers. While a core group of around 250 people walked the entire route, on any given day, there were between a few thousand to a hundred thousand joining us. (I myself walked roughly three-quarters of the route.)
Along the way, we worked to engage with locals in multiple ways — holding hundreds of corner meetings, press conferences and rallies, distributing pamphlets with political messaging and staging dance performances and music shows.
At one level, the march is a high-stakes battle for relevance.
After independence in 1947, the Congress party’s ideology was broadly defined by secular, left-of-center policies that acknowledged India’s complex religious, cultural, linguistic and geographic diversity. It governed India for more than five decades. Since 2014, however, the political landscape has been transformed — and the party’s fortunes have declined — with the rise to power of the right-of-center Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), under the leadership of strongman Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In 2014 and 2019 the Congress lost two national elections in a row. Its share of members in the Indian house of elected representatives, the Lok Sabha, is among the lowest in its history. Three years later, in 2022, the party contested elections in 7 Indian states and failed to form a government in 6.
After these losses, Congress party leaders held a three-day-long ‘soul searching’ session aiming to identify strategies to bounce back. “Hotly debated topics,” Indian news site The Wire reported, included “the party’s ideological stance and the need to build political alliances with smaller parties.”
Major recommendations that emerged included new elections for the party’s President as well as affording greater representation to younger generations — and the implementation of our yatra.
(The yatra has attracted criticism from the BJP, with a party spokesperson describing it as a “parivaar bachao andolan” (“Save the family movement”) in reference to the Gandhi family’s political fortunes. The BJP has further questioned the need for the yatra, and alleged the project is dividing the nation.)
Under Modi, the BJP’s electoral successes have been built on a platform of militant Hindu nationalism, or Hinduvta. A key component of this strategy is the villainization of India’s Muslim minority, a group that forms around 15% of the country’s 1.4 billion people — though a BJP spokesperson said earlier this month the party, “(follows) the principle that every citizen is equal and should be treated as such… With that, PM Modi has stated that no one, including Muslims, should be left out.”
This state-driven ‘othering’ of the Muslim minority has translated to increased polarization on the ground. The press finds itself under increased pressure to follow right-wing narratives. In 2022, the television news channel NDTV, long critical of the BJP government, was bought in a hostile takeover by billionaire Gautam Adani, a key business acolyte of Modi. (In a recent regulatory filing, its new owners said NDTV will be implementing “a fresh strategic direction” moving forward.)
Much political discourse has descended into outright personal hostility, with troll factories on Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter used extensively to disseminate disinformation and outright hatred. Anti-Muslim sentiment has proliferated exponentially as a result.
Individual freedoms are also under threat, particularly those who raise the voice of protest against the government.
So there’s more to the Bharat Jodo Yatra than the question of a political party’s survival. 75 years after India became a free nation, the country finds itself locked in another struggle, one I believe will define the soul of this nation. We are witnessing a systematic attempt to transform the very ideological DNA of a once liberal, tolerant nation. It’s not just the future of the Congress party that is in peril, it’s the definition of what it means to be Indian.
And so we walked.
Walia’s blisters have gone, and he now says there are days he feels like he could walk forever — as a “protest against (the) lack of employment opportunities for youth under this regime,” a consistent issue for Modi’s government.
Haokip walked because she wants to “highlight the patriarchal BJP mindset and the increased violence against women.” (During a speech last summer, Modi did highlight gender equality as an issue, and said, “it’s important that in speech and conduct, we do nothing that lowers the dignity of women.”) Haokip’s doctors have warned her of possible permanent damage to her leg, but “there are only a few days left to the end anyway,” she told me in late January.
For me, walking the length of the country was an incredible experience. I’ve learned you can pretty much drop into a stranger’s house in rural India and receive instant hospitality. Watching Congress party workers rocking out to our Yatra’s theme music in Kerala, eating dal bhati with companions in Madhya Pradesh or learning to tie the 30-foot-long safa headgear in Rajasthan – these are memories that will last a lifetime.
It is too early to make any definitive evaluation of the Yatra’s impact, as the Congress party has been careful to separate its long-term goals from short-term electoral gains. But over the past five months, I have observed a reinvigorating impact on the party’s organizational structure in the areas we have passed through.
Pulling off an exercise on this scale is itself testament to the party’s national reach. And days before the yatra concluded, the party announced a nationwide electoral initiative ahead of the 2024 national elections designed to extend the Bharat Jodo program to the state, district and village level.
The most immediate impact of the Yatra, however, has been the transformation of Rahul Gandhi’s image, after years of him being relentlessly trolled as a simple-minded and entitled amateur politician. This, in my opinion, will have a significant role on the Congress party’s electoral fortunes, in a country where elections are fought as much on personalities as issues.
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I have read that a Roman legion was expected to march around 30 kilometers in a day and fight a pitched battle at the end of it. The yatris are not a military force, but as we walk we also fight our own battles every day. These battles could be with personal physical ailments, or the mental stress of being on the road, away from family and friends, day after day for almost half a year. And yes, we fight for political relevance and to win elections.
But most of all, we fight to determine the future of this nation.