IN THE 1980S, A SONG FROM THE Rajesh Khanna starrer Avtaar, with the lyrics “Chalo bulawa aaya hai, Mata ne bulaya hai (Come, the call has come, mother/the Goddess is calling us)”, sung in Narendra Chanchal’s striking nasal pitch, gained a popularity that has long outlasted the film. The music revolution unleashed by Gulshan Kumar’s T-Series meant the song was played from temples, puja and jagran pandals, and tinny audio systems in taxis, autos and buses belted out the devotional theme. A masterful singer of bhajans, Chanchal enjoyed an appeal that resonated with the multitudes. Renditions by other singers like Mahendra Kapoor and Asha Bhosle were equally popular and sparked a religiosity and revived interest in the 13 km hilly trek to the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu. Yatras with religious connotations, though hardly new to the Indian consciousness, became a more overt and visible part of popular culture the 1980s onwards, not the least due to films, many of them small-budget productions, and easy access to music cassettes. The Amarnath Yatra in Anantnag in Kashmir Valley, like Vaishno Devi, also a trek to sacred caves though more demanding, is open to the public in warmer days. Almost every state has a well-known yatra that demands a degree of physical rigor and some form of abstinence from devotees. The walk to the Ayyappa shrine at Sabarimala, the expedition to Pandharpur in Maharashtra in honour of Vithoba and the arduous summer-time Char Dham Yatra in Uttarakhand draw thousands who leave everyday chores for an act of spiritual renewal.
It is hardly surprising that the yatra was readily repurposed as a political vehicle, as parties and leaders, sensing the popular connect of such exercises, looked to use them as a means to garner support. Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March in 1930 is often discussed as an early example of the padyatra (journey on foot) as a means of political mobilisation, with the 240 km walk becoming a precursor to more widespread civil disobedience. Several yatras were undertaken by Congress leaders in many parts of the country and often faced harsh opposition in native states as well as areas under direct British rule. The Dandi March caught the imagination of an enslaved nation and received wide reviews in the international press. As with much of Gandhi’s politics, the Salt Satyagraha from Sabarmati to the southern sea shore of Gujarat was imbued with a spiritual content with the discipline and frugality of the marchers, reflecting a sense of sacrifice and high moral purpose. The act of protest, with its powerful symbolism, motivated thousands to trade the comfort and certainties of their lives as students and professionals for the perilous task of opposing the British Raj. In more recent times, Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is the latest bid by a leader and a party to re-establish a dialogue with voters and present themselves as willing to walk and listen to the masses. The Congress show, with its train of containers and guest appearances by social workers, commentators and film personalities, is replete with media images of Rahul hugging and walking hand-in-hand with marchers. While the jury on the yatra is still out—it skipped the electoral battlefield of Gujarat and effectively kept Rahul out of the campaign—there have been many such efforts by national and regional leaders seeking to either renew or secure a compact with electors. Not many have succeeded.
In modern-day politics post-Indira Gandhi, there has been no yatra more discussed than Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) veteran LK Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra. The passage of the Toyota rath, scheduled to travel from Somnath to Ayodhya, generated an unprecedented public response. It was also subject to a deluge of critical commentary that the yatra was against Muslims and the BJP stalwart was advocating a dangerous and polarising mix of religion and politics. Advani was detained in Samastipur by then Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad who tom-tommed the decision as a blow for secularism. Predictably enough, Lalu’s political messaging was not seen as polarising or a case of vote-bank considerations by commentators who took umbrage at Advani’s campaign for the Ram temple in Ayodhya. As yatras go, the Rath Yatra was a potent blend of religio-cultural motifs and political objectives. The Ram Mandir was a tangible representation of BJP’s Hindutva formulation and also provided the architecture for the party’s wider nationalist narrative. In driving home the secular ‘denial’ of Hindu heritage, Advani presented a political alternative. In the election after the 1990 yatra, BJP moved from 85 to 120 seats in Lok Sabha but just the numbers do not fully tell the story.
BJP gained critical momentum in reaching sections of agrarian peasantry, seeking a new sense of identity other than caste or region-based political associations. Not all of Advani’s subsequent yatras were as successful. His Varanasi to Ayodhya journey for the December 6, 1992, kar seva received visible support en route but ended with the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
If Advani’s personal journey as a migrant from Sindh lent itself to the quest for a destination inherent in a yatra, the churning provided an opportunity for BJP’s emerging crop of leaders like Narendra Modi and Pramod Mahajan to display their organisational skills. There were other yatras, too, like the one undertaken by Chandra Shekhar, the stormy petrel of Indian politics who never quite mellowed, in 1983 that took him around the country but failed to hold the attention of the public. Telugu Desam founder NT Rama Rao in 1982 and Congress leader YS Rajasekhara Reddy in 2003 had better luck in Andhra Pradesh where they led their parties to electoral victories that saw the mobilisation translate into electoral bonanzas. Congress leader Digvijaya Singh went on a Narmada Yatra in 2018 that he said was non-political although it was timed ahead of the state elections later that year. BJP did lose that election, though this was more due to the wages of incumbency and upper-caste anger against the decision of the Central government to undo the Supreme Court’s ruling diluting some of the stringent provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Singh enjoyed a brief period of prominence when Congress held office before it was unseated by Jyotiraditya Scindia’s revolt. Soon after Advani’s yatra, BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi led the Ekta Yatra from Kanyakumari to Srinagar which ended in a security nightmare. Modi, who was the convenor of the yatra, managed to organise a quick hoisting of the national flag in front of a small gathering in Srinagar.
The shorter and more common version of yatras is the roadshow. Like the longer version, roadshows can deliver but also expose weaknesses. A road is easier to fill and a few thousand people can look like a large crowd but at the same time a thin presence looks terrible. Along with the numbers, public response is a key factor as roadshows are intended to be a show of strength. After his rebellion against Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh’s car-borne forays through Uttar Pradesh were met by rapturous crowds, presaging Janata Dal’s strong showing in the 1989 Lok Sabha polls and Singh’s rise to prime ministership. Modi has used roadshows with telling effect; his long drive through Ahmedabad during the Gujarat election was meant to be an emphatic statement. The prime minister similarly used an open-roof vehicle to mark the end of campaigning in his Lok Sabha constituency of Varanasi in 2019, sealing not only a second win but telegraphing a larger message of political dominance in the Hindi heartland. In the 2017 Gujarat election, the first in the state after he moved to Delhi, Modi took a seaplane ride from the Sabarmati river and then drove to the Ambaji temple in Mehsana, sketching a vision of the state’s future trajectory and also paying obeisance to its cultural roots. In an unusually tight election, the imagery seemed to have worked, setting out as it did the choice before voters.
Soon after he returned to India from South Africa in 1915, Gandhi took long train journeys to meet people and visit various parts of the country. There were elements of a discovery of India in his passage and helped him choose his initial battlegrounds like the Champaran Satyagraha or the Indigo farmers’ revolt in 1917. A year later, he oversaw the protest by farmers in Kheda in Gujarat against having to cough up dues despite crop failure and also successfully led the strike of mill workers in Ahmedabad. All yatras are as much within as they are without and at the centre is a yatri engaged in an act of spiritual rebirth and intellectual renewal. An itinerant pursuing an elusive truth, seeking a date with destiny.
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