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Ab bus karo, please!

LK Advani's yatra is a last-century tactic to deal with this century's problems, writes Namita Bhandare.

india Updated: Oct 14, 2011 23:46 IST
Namita Bhandare

Oh-ho, there he goes again. Like an Annual Day school theme, every edition of LK Advani's rath yatra comes with its own slogan. This one's against corruption. And black money. Heck, it even has its own rock anthem: 'Ab bus' (Bus? What happened to the rath?).

If you're looking for novelty, look elsewhere. In the past one month, six different politicians will be rolling out their own yatras. There's a 'sewa yatra' by Nitish Kumar and a 'kranti yatra' by Akhilesh Yadav. Even yoga teacher-turned anti-corruption crusader Baba Ramdev has a yatra.

There's a sense of déjà vu: been there, seen that. Advani is a veteran; this is his sixth roadshow since 1990s Somnath to Ayodhya tour. The story goes that Advani was planning a padyatra, or walking tour, to drum up support for the Ram mandir when Pramod Mahajan came up with the idea of converting a truck into a 'rath' because a walk would take too long. The plan worked; newspapers reported how people were flocking to the rath, smearing dust from its tyres on their foreheads. The BJP won the next election, even though it was AB Vajpayee, not Advani, who became prime minister.

The pilgrim's progress has been a bit bumpy since. None of Advani's subsequent yatras, whether in 1993 or in 1997 could reap the gains of 1990. If anything, Advani's 2004 India Shining yatra ended with political defeat for the BJP.

Perhaps the problem was that yatras had simply run their course. Padyatras have been used successfully in Indian politics since Gandhiji's walk from Saba-rmati to Dandi in 1930. In independent India, Sunil Dutt walked through Punjab during the height of militancy in the late 80s. And in 1983, Chandra Shekhar walked 4,000 km from Kanyakumari to Rajghat in Delhi.

But if Gandhiji showed how yatras could be an effective tool in connecting people, he also gave independent India its most favoured tool of protest: the fast. Sundry politicians, trade unionists, activists, students have fasted with varying degrees of success. Anna Hazare flexed muscle with his recent 12-day bhookh hartal. In Koodankulam, 5,000 villagers are on a 'relay hunger strike' - a pragmatic adaptation surely - against the setting up of a nuclear power plant. And in 2009 Chandrasekhar Rao's 12-day fast got the central government to concede to Telangana. Irom Sharmila who's been on a fast for 11 years - she is force-fed through a tube in her nose - has met with less success.

If we needed a signal that fasts could descend to farce, it was last month's competitive fasting in Gujarat. To counter chief minister Narendra Modi's 'sadbhavna fast', Congressmen undertook a fast of their own outside Sabarmati Ashram. Adding to the theatrics, a social organisation also announced a fast to protest cow slaughter. Why get left behind?

Yatras, fasts, bandhs, gheraos are old political tricks inherited by an independent India; last century's tactics to deal with this century's problems. And, yet, India has moved on. An increasingly youthful population has embraced free markets, global brands, social media, new cinema. Everything has changed, it seems, except our politics, still locked in caste, lineage and a seniority mindset.

The average age of our Cabinet ministers is 65. Younger politicians seem to be overshadowed, rarely speaking up on issues that touch young India. An Omar Abdullah might create momentary flutters with a tweet and Rahul Gandhi's sleepovers at Dalit homes will spark comments, but by and large politicians have failed to come up with a big bang new idea.

Instead we have deference to seniority, a clinging to status quo and the same tired old script being played out before an increasingly jaded audience.

Meanwhile, Advani's rath yatra hit a snag on day one with a malfunctioning air-conditioner emitting exhaust fumes. So noxious were these that poor Sushma Swaraj became sick. A doctor had to be called in. Perhaps the fumes, and the sickness, were a sign. A sign to really say ab bus.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.