New Delhi: His BlackBerry helps him stay in constant touch with friends. But to woo votes, Rahul Gandhi prefers a political tool that goes back to the days of Mahatma Gandhi: long marches to the countryside.
The Congress party’s lodestar is not the only one who follows a mass contact programme.
Be it L.K. Advani, the octogenarian leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who blogs almost every week, Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM’s, controversial Kerala state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan or former chairman of Lanco Kondapalli Power Pvt. Ltd L. Rajagopal, a high-profile first-time member of Parliament (MP) in the 14th Lok Sabha; they all believe in the power of the so-called political yatra in mobilizing public opinion.
This is despite the rapid growth of the electronic media and live telecast of parliamentary and, in several instances, assembly proceedings, which ensure an unprecedented familiarity with their constituency and also the fact that there is no guarantee that the yatra would yield results.
Significantly, many are not even linked to the general election due to begin from 16 April.
When Andhra Pradesh chief minister (CM) Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddyembarked on a 100-day yatra across the state in April last year to publicize his government’s achievements, his arch-rival and Telegu Desam Party (TDP) president N. Chandrababu Naiduannounced his own march immediately. Telangana Rashtra Samiti president K. Chandrasekhar Raoalso followed the other two in a few days.
While Vijayan’s February-March Nava Kerala Yatra was aimed at asserting his own d ominance in the faction-ridden state party unit, his arch-rival and Congress’ state president Ramesh Chennithalawanted to consolidate his party’s support base in Kerala ahead of the elections by his Save Kerala March, conducted earlier this month.
In Chhattisgarh, CM and BJP leader Raman Singhaddressed 360 public gatherings during his six-day Kisan Utsav march that started on 22 February, to highlight his government’s schemes for farmers. Singh had then distributed Rs440 crore as the first instalment of paddy bonus to about 800,000 farmers, hoping to boost the BJP’s prospects ahead of the polls.
His Madhya Pradesh counterpart and BJP leader Shivraj Singh Chauhanalso went on a Nyaya Yatra on 21 February to protest against alleged discrimination by the Centre in allocation of coal to the state, and other issues.
Although political yatras have always been a part of Indian politics, ever since Mahatama Gandhi popularized the concept, it was revived as a political instrument, first by N.T. Rama Rao, when he launched the TDP in 1982, and later by Advani with his Rath Yatra demanding the construction of a Ram temple on a disputed site in Ayodhya; it helped the BJP consolidate Hindu votes in North India and led to the BJP’s ascent to power at the Centre in 1999 as the biggest party in the National Democratic Alliance.
Political leaders, even young and gizmo-friendly politicians admit that the response yatras receive is amazing. “There is no alternative to meeting them in person. If you have been in touch with them during the five years, nothing else matters,” said Jitin Prasada, minister of state for steel and Congress MP.
Arguing similarly, Rajagopal, MP from Vijayawada, who has personally visited every household in his constituency twice during the last five years, said, “It is better to have personal contacts. No media can reach the entire constituency.”
Some analysts believe that the socio-economic diversity in the country is the reason as to why yatras continue to gain traction.
Rama Brahmam, a professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, said, “This is a tool through which political mobilization takes place. In a country with a large number of illiterates, personal appeal matters a lot when it is towards a cause or for a purpose. These normal political instruments are available and they are significant too.”
However, a senior BJP leader added: “Political roadshows will be effective only if the party or the leader has something solid to offer. Rahul Gandhi could not make any inroads despite his numerous roadshows in Uttar Pradesh. Although Advani’s Rath Yatra was a success, he failed to infuse the same spirit during his cross-country rally ahead of 2004 general elections.”
It will be interesting to see whether this return to the touchy-feely brand of politics returns the desired political dividends in the coming polls.