“Our activities generally start 10-15 days before the elections. Then the village comes to life,” says Jitendra Singh Tomar, sitting under a tree in Baswan village, nearly 60 kilometers from Khandwa, in Madhya Pradesh. A staunch congressman, he barely caught a glimpse of Rahul Gandhi as he and his colleague Bharat Jodo Yatris passed through Baswa last week.
A banner was still hanging on a tree across the road welcoming Rahul on behalf of the villagers. And there are some convention flags on top of supermarkets and tea shops nearby.
Tomar’s friend Khemraj Ghander, who has also been a loyal supporter of Congress, says there aren’t many celebrations throughout the year. The Yatra was a “welcome change,” he says, adding that people lined up on both sides of the road to see Rahul.
Party activities in the area, he says, are coordinated by “Patelji” from Sanawad, referring to Narendra Patel, general secretary of the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC). Patel’s residence is also the office of the Sanawad Block Congress Committee in Khargone district, where his local rivals may not feel at home. However, Patel is a bit upset and so are local party leaders.
A stage was set up in Sanawad to welcome Rahul costing thousands of rupees. Food and drink was arranged for the Yatris. Rahul was supposed to stop there, but didn’t – and even the MPCC general secretary has no idea why his planned stop was changed at the last minute. “He just passed Sanawad waving to people,” says Patel. In Baswa too, villagers had brought 500 liters of milk to make tea. It was all lost, says Tomar.
Similar stories were told by other Congress workers along the Yatra route in Madhya Pradesh – the first Hindi-speaking state to enter the Yatra, via Burhanpur on Nov. 23, since it departed from Kanyakumari on Sept. 7.
Cut to Mhow. It is 11 a.m., but the city convention office has yet to open. A shopkeeper nearby says it only opens when there is a party. Pramod, another shopkeeper, waves to an elderly man riding a bicycle. “Seva Dal,” he calls. Naresh Sharma, a contractor in his sixties, was appointed as the local Seva Dal coordinator a few weeks ago. He had to arrange accommodation for 200 Seva Dal volunteers who had reached Mhow, the hometown of BR Ambedkar, where Rahul visited the “Bhim Janm Bhoomi” and addressed a public rally on November 26, Constitution Day.
“I spent Rs 9,000 to arrange their accommodation in a dharamshala. I still have to pay them. They are after my life. We don’t get any money from the MPCC,’ says Sharma.
The dust of the Yatra has settled in these districts. Dozens of Congress leaders and workers with whom The Indian Express spoke on the stretch the Yatra traveled so far on its ongoing Madhya Pradesh leg – in Indore, Mhow, Khandwa and Khargone districts – admit that the challenge for the party now is to fully to keep its momentum. “We can’t sleep now,” said a party leader.
The Congress should continue to organize activities and not stand still, says Khargone MLA Ravi Joshi. “We will have to organize similar yatras in all districts,” he says.
Congressional leadership has yet to send such directions. It may be too early for that, as the cross-country Yatra is still sweeping through Madhya Pradesh, where parliamentary elections will be held in December next year. However, there is a general refrain from the Congress rank and file that the Yatra has energized party workers. “Workers are charging ho gaya,” says Khemraj.
They also say that the Yatra also has the “right political point of view”, while admitting that the challenge now is to get its message to every village. “The image about Rahulji… People used to call him Pappu and stuff… that is gone. They saw him walking the roads…they heard him talking,” said Sanjay Joshi, a teacher in Barwaha.
Rahul visited Mahakaleshwar and Omkareshwar temples, which are among the 12 Jyotirlinga sites in India. The pictures of Rahul, with his forehead smeared with vermilion, performing Aarti while wearing a saffron shawl and walking through the dusty roads of Madhya Pradesh while wearing a tilak are sent and forwarded through the formal and informal WhatsApp party groups.
‘I don’t mind Rahulji visiting temples. In fact, he should do that more often. The BJP has portrayed the Congress and Rahul as anti-Hindu,” said Aftab Hilal, head of Sanawad city congress. Patel agrees. “We are disappointed that he didn’t stop at Sanawad. But it would have hurt me if he hadn’t gone for darshan in Omkareshwar,” he says.
In messages to Dalits and Adivasis, Rahul also paid tribute at the Ambedkar memorial in Mhow and to tribal icon and freedom fighter Tantya Bhil at his hometown in Khandwa.
The Congress leadership realizes that it is imperative to maintain the political pace of the Yatra, not only in the districts it passes through, but also in the states it has already traversed. Sources said review meetings are being held by Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge in this regard.
The first indication about the leadership’s follow-up action came when Sake Sailajanath was removed as head of the Andhra Pradesh Congress. “It happened after a review meeting of the Yatra in Delhi. An important feedback was that the chief of Andhra PCC and his team were totally ineffective. The Yatra was very bad in Andhra in that the PCC president didn’t seem interested. Everyone knows our situation in Andhra, but the effort and the way a PCC chairman should behave was missing. It’s a trifle, a low-hanging fruit, but it was done. Oommen Chandy, the AICC in charge of Andhra would also be dropped. He is physically unable. But he continues. It shows that Khargeji does not want to take radical steps,” said one leader.
In the Karnataka polling station, the party plans to organize four busyatras as a follow-up to the Bharat Jodo Yatra. “Siddaramaiah, DK Shivakumar…all great leaders will embark on separate yatras. They will also walk a bit. Each will cover 60 Assembly seats,” said another leader.
“Yes, we do regular follow-up. It is not that we sit still after the Yatra passes through a state,” said an AICC leader.
But the congress leaders in the areas the Yatra passed through in Madhya Pradesh say Rahul should have turned to local leaders, although they understand the security concerns. “He should have met prominent local leaders for at least four to five minutes… It can’t be a morning walk. He just walked waving his hand. People couldn’t see him. There is a security cordon and he is surrounded by senior leaders,” Pramod said.
‘If he stops and meets everyone, the Yatra will never end. It won’t get anywhere,” said an AICC official, justifying the speed of Rahul’s march.