Distantly Close | The economics of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra

Updated on Jan 03, 2023 07:43 AM IST

The 3,570-kilometre Kashmir to Kanyakumari journey on foot seemed audacious for a cash-strapped party. A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that the budget journey must have cost the party around ₹300 crore for 150 days

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during the Bharat Jodo Yatra, December 24, 2022 (PTI) PREMIUM
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during the Bharat Jodo Yatra, December 24, 2022 (PTI)
By Vinod Sharma

Monetarily, how much the Bharat Jodo Yatra must have cost the Congress? The question’s valid as even the man-hours invested by hundreds of thousands of party supporters, cadres and sympathisers, who had to be fed three meals a day, couldn’t have come for free.

By all accounts, the 3,570-kilometre Kashmir to Kanyakumari journey on foot seemed audacious for a party so strapped of cash that it has had to cut corners or resort to feeble electoral challenges, as was evident in the recent Gujarat polls where the Congress gave the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a veritable walk-over. The invaluable political ground it lost in the State – making room for the Aam Aadmi Party to squat --- will be hard to regain anytime soon and could be a permanent loss. But that’s another story.

“You gain some, you lose some,” averred a Congress official involved in the planning and execution of the yatra. He said the marathon helped the party “reconnect and dialogue” with the people with its most prominent face in the lead. Citing party general-secretary KC Venugopal’s claim of 70% of voluntary participation in the yatra being of people below 35 years, he said: “It’s a success in endurance terms and the outreach that helped introduce the Congress to an entirely new generation of voters with the message of unity and togetherness.”

In political or perception terms, it’s hard to immediately quantify the yatra’s gains for the party in general and Rahul Gandhi in particular. Nevertheless, the journey showcased the Congress’s residual organisational strength, given the complex logistics and everyday planning that made it a smooth affair without major hiccups until it reached Delhi on Christmas eve for a nine-day break. Gandhi resumed the onward, relatively arduous 500-odd km walk on January 3.

The break was both well-earned and necessary. The custom-built containers, which served as night shelters for the Bharat Yatris, whose numbers grew to over 100 along the 3,122-km trek to Delhi, required to be fitted with heaters to beat the chill on the Kashmir leg through Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. Numbering 60 and mounted on trucks that moved ahead of the yatra to designated night halts, the containers with austere sleeper-berths were designed to accommodate two-eight yatris. Only those earmarked for a core group of travellers came with attached bathing facilities.

A company owned by a relative of a senior Congress leader was contracted to build, install, operate and maintain the containers at 26 crore inclusive of the fuel cost, said a yatra organiser. That was one significant investment the party’s central office made besides sundry costs on logistics, travel, online relay of the yatra and feeder transportation to enable special invitees to join the journey at convenient midway points.

The yatra reached Delhi in 108 days traversing 46 districts in nine states. The party units in states/ districts along the route arranged for three daily meals for yatris divided into three categories: Bharat yatris, state yatris and the aam janata (general public) who joined and dropped-off the procession along the way. Their aggregate count at any given point ran in thousands. Feeding them alone cost the state/district Congress units between 1 to 1.5 crore a day. That included overheads on mobilising water tankers, portable toilets and make-shift overnight accommodation.

Depending on their means, certain state Congress units spent as much as 2 crore a day on food and lodging for yatris of all hues, including those who couldn’t be accommodated in containers. A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation will work out to a combined 150-200 crore tab for the state units for the whole stretch of the yatra.

All told, it’ll be, at the minimum, an 300 crore yatra, including the share of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). “The bottom line could mislead some into believing that it was a luxury yatra, which it wasn’t,” averred a senior party official. “Ours has been a budget endeavour. Jog your memory and you’d agree that what we’ve spent is peanuts compared to what other, better off parties (read the BJP) invest in individual public events.”

State-centric functionaries with whom this writer spoke disclosed that senior leaders contributed to the yatra expenses by local units that aren’t well-endowed and rely on the AICC for meeting their monthly salary and other bills.

For instance, there was a lot of buzz around former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan’s hospitality (in terms of the quality of food) in Nanded. In contrast, yatris recounted as “eminently forgettable” the Madhya Pradesh experience in terms of catering and other arrangements.

“The public (not our leaders) saved the day with their enthusiastic response in the first Hindi-belt state the yatra touched on criss-crossing the southern states and Maharashtra,” recalled a yatri who walked the distance to Delhi.

Things smoothened once the yatris hit the Congress-ruled Rajasthan, where they “felt belonged” regardless of the inner-party discord of the kind that impacted the MP stretch. There were a few disconcerting moments at a cultural event, but the walk proceeded without glitches.

The Gandhi-led yatra will conclude with a flag-hoisting ceremony in Srinagar on January 30. But before that, a follow-up journey christened hath-se-hath-jodo (locking hands in unity) would start on Republic Day. The 137-year-old party has a long haul ahead of it. It’s getting to know ostensibly the hiatus between walking the distance and regaining the political ground it has lost since 2014.

HT’s veteran political editor, Vinod Sharma, brings together his four-decade-long experience of closely tracking Indian politics, his intimate knowledge of the actors who dominate the political theatre, and his keen eye which can juxtapose the past and the present in his weekly column, Distantly Close

vinodsharma@hindustantimes.com

The views expressed are personal

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