A comment that music virtuoso TM Krishna made after briefly joining Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra in Madhya Pradesh interested me. "The atmosphere radiated positivity and happiness," said Krishna, adding that around him he saw "not the conniving smile of gleefulness, not the smile of a victor, but the smile of fraternity."
Rahul himself provided a quotable quote when he declared that he was setting up a dukaan of mohabbat in a bazaar of hate.
For some time now, we've been hearing loud and brazenly unlawful calls to harass or even eliminate India's Muslims. The Maharashtra government's recent announcement of a panel for monitoring interfaith marriages was only a fresh, if indirect, salvo in this ongoing nationwide campaign to demonise India's minorities. Facing this barrage, India's politicians have mostly pussyfooted around the subject, fearing that any defence of Muslims will alienate the country's 80 percent Hindu majority.
By openly confronting nafrat, Rahul Gandhi's yatra may have broken the spell of fear. Bharat Jodo has turned out to be an excellent slogan. It is a necessary one, too. Two accompanying slogans underlined by Rahul, "Bring prices down!" and "Provide employment!" also make perfect political sense.
Although I have not seen any polling on the subject, I would wager that a great majority of India's Hindus are against minority demonisation and favour Bharat Jodo and that a large majority of India's Muslims and Christians respect the worth of their Hindu compatriots. Even so, and despite the Yatra's undoubted impact (which, given media neglect, is quite remarkable) it is by no means clear that the Yatra has made the Congress much stronger. The much-needed reiteration during the Yatra that India belongs to all equally, and that all have a stake in India's unity, can only be a start of any serious Congress revival. The bulk of the task remains to be done.
Indians will now be curious to see whether the Congress has the fire to mobilise and involve the masses. Answers will have to come not primarily from Rahul Gandhi or Mallikarjun Kharge, but from individual Congress leaders across India and at all levels.
Students of history know that in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, when the Congress's connection with the Indian people was at its strongest, a great many leaders across the land were regularly speaking up, writing, protesting, marching, and courting punishment. It wasn't just Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose. Today, to expect either Kharge or Rahul, or the two of them together, to transform the current Congress organisation on their own is to ask for the impossible.
Although Narendra Modi is the BJP's unquestioned leader, a variety of individuals in that party and in the RSS parivaar speak up directly or indirectly for majoritarianism. How many in the Congress are active or vocal champions of Bharat Jodo and equal rights for Indians of any and every background?
Occasionally, we hear a Shashi Tharoor or a Kanhaiya Kumar or a Jignesh Mevani - or a Jairam Ramesh, Ashok Gehlot, a Bhupesh Baghel or a P. Chidambaram - saying something along those lines, but surely the battle for everyone's dignity in India demands a thousand voices?
And hundreds of writers. If a Congress journal exists, in which individual party workers or leaders express their clear (and where needed dissenting) opinions on the challenges facing our country, we don't hear of it. Every week, dozens of anti-constitutional and polarising statements are made by the majoritarians. Only a few are quickly or firmly countered by alert Congress leaders, whether in speech or in print. Whether our mass media reports any such ripostes is another matter, of course.
In today's hate-filled and insular bazaar, Rahul Gandhi's "shop for everyone" will certainly not be enough. If others in the Congress are not setting up such "shops", is that Rahul's fault or Mallikarjun Kharge's? And if other Congresspersons wish to speak up to preserve (or restore) an India of liberty, equality and fraternity, why should they wait for permission from Kharge or Rahul? Birthrights are not defended by another's permission.
I am not arguing that democratic rights are the sole issue before India. As Rahul also points out, prices and jobs are of equal importance. Yet, it's better by far to stand for liberty, equality and fraternity and lose an election than to pretend that there is no struggle for democratic rights in today's India.
Something else that Rahul recently said was both significant and necessary. He said the Congress wants to work with all other opposition parties to defend democracy.
Excellent. But what about the Congress's oft-seen ability to wrest defeat from the jaws of success in friendly territory? More than one commentator has said that given the unpopularity of Karnataka's current BJP government, the only way for the Congress to lose next year in that state would be for Siddaramiah and DK Shivakumar to think of each other rather than the BJP as the real adversary.
Is it only up to Kharge or Rahul Gandhi to ensure that the two Karnataka stalwarts stay united? Moreover, can Rahul Gandhi or Kharge create or compel unity between two seasoned leaders? I bring up this point to underline the unreasonableness of the demand that Rahul Gandhi or Kharge on their own should somehow transform the Congress organisation in state after state.
By any reckoning, the Bharat Jodo Yatra is turning out to be a landmark in the story of Rahul Gandhi, whose warm personal connect with an endless wave of citizens has been as impressive as his physical stamina on the long march. Whether the Yatra also results in a significant strengthening of the fight for democratic rights in India depends not so much on what Rahul Gandhi does from here on, but on what others in the Congress and in a range of opposition parties do or fail to do.