Rahul Gandhi is conquering the margins like Shivaji did. Is this marginal politics?

There is a famous story about how Shivaji learnt a lesson in strategic thinking from an old lady. Wandering in jungles, following a spate of unsuccessful military campaigns, Shivaji stopped for a meal at the doorsteps of an old lady who did not recognise him. She served him a thali full of hot steaming khichdi. When she saw him trying to eat from the middle and burn his fingers, she: “Young soldier, you are like your king, who tries to attack the centre of enemy territories and fails every time. Why don’t you eat from the corner and then move to the centre?” That is what Shivaji did with khichdi and with all his future military campaigns. The rest is history.

Is Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra an attempt to follow that advice and conquer the margins first? I sensed that when I joined the yatra in Manipur. While political pundits questioned the point of starting the yatra in the Northeastern states devoid of any electoral heft, Rahul Gandhi insisted that it must start from the North East and that too from Manipur. It was a risky choice, both physically and politically. Manipur continues to be on the boil and the yatra was an easy target for any militant group, overground or underground. Besides, the Congress is a pale shadow of what it used to be in the Northeastern hill states till about a decade ago. It could not depend on its party organisation to mobilise crowds for the yatra. For Rahul Gandhi, it was a moral-ideological issue. You cannot do a nyay yatra and skip the one state of India that is suffering the worst form of political injustice—where the Indian State is a mute spectator to a virtual civil war ignited and stoked by it.

People’s response vindicated this risky move. Since the yatra has been blacked out by the ‘Notional Media’—my shorthand for the NOIDA-based-national media channels— you have to turn to YouTube to see with your own eyes the outpouring of ordinary people to welcome Rahul Gandhi. I shall never forget the scenes as the yatra entered the Kuki areas in Senapati district, one of the most violence-affected regions over the past few months. No doubt the yatra had a spectacular welcome in the Metei areas the evening before, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of embrace. Virtually all the villagers on and around the route had gathered on the roadside, eyes filled with tears and hopes, desperate to clutch on to their one connection to the Indian state. Women came into the yatra bus and poured out their hearts. Children stood with posters. Social workers fleshed out the long-term impact of this violence. Community leaders put forward their demands. There was grief, bitterness and anger, but it was impossible to miss the hope that Rahul Gandhi could heal their wounds. For me, this was a moment of national integration.

Nagaland affirmed that this was no flash in the pan. We were a little ahead of the yatra, in a small town called Wokha, talking to people waiting for Rahul Gandhi to arrive. The tea stall owner insisted that we have the local version of aloo puri (a cross between bhatura and puri) and refused to take money from yatri like us. Women waited for over an hour with their children, just for a glimpse. Everyone in the town was out on the street or rooftops. Just as it would happen anywhere else in the country. For a moment you could forget that this is Nagaland, the site of the first insurgency against the Indian state, where a visitor could still be asked “Are you from India?”, where the underground militant groups still hold the reins. You would also not notice that the Congress party does not have even a single MLA in the 40-member state assembly. The contrast was less stark in Arunachal and Meghalaya where the Congress party still matters, but the popular reception of the nyay yatra clearly outstripped the organisational or electoral strength of the Congress party. I remembered the sea of people in Kanyakumari and the moving scenes in the Kashmir valley during the Bharat Jodo Yatra.

It may not impress hard-core political animals — All this is fine, they might ask, but what about real mainstream politics? Isn’t this politics of the margins a marginal politics? How would this help take on the state power and street power of the BJP, the deadly mix of money and media that it controls, its political strategy and organisational machine?

Bharat Jodo must begin at the geographical peripheries. And it has, thanks to the residual goodwill of the Congress party and an emotional connect that Rahul Gandhi enjoys with those at the margins.

Margin or mainstream
The metaphor of the margin took another meaning as we entered Assam and then crossed the ‘chicken neck’. As the first yatra, it has had a special connect with those at the social margins. And it’s not just the religious minorities. No doubt Rahul Gandhi enjoys a natural connect with the Muslims, though he makes no visible attempt at symbolic appeasement. Contrary to BJP propaganda, the yatra route has paid no special attention to areas of Muslim concentration (Kishanganj and Malda figured in the route as they have sitting MPs from Congress). There are no routine visits to every Dargah, no coterie of bearded clergy, no sher-o-shayari in his speeches, nothing beyond the usual namaste. Despite this, an ordinary Muslim can sense that he is committed to equal citizenship rights, that he can be trusted to fight against the RSS-BJP machine more than the traditional ‘secular’ leaders. They flock in large numbers, they hang on to every word that he utters, they read between the lines and would happily back his candidates if they stand a serious chance.

The focus of this nyay yatra is mainly on the last person on the socio-economic ladder, those who live at the bottom of the pyramid. It helps that Rahul Gandhi is truly comfortable amid the Adivasis, Dalits and those who work with their hands. His natural comfort with Adivasis gives a punch to his attack on the BJP’s paternal politics of “vanvasi”. His constant interrogation of the caste structure of privileged India may not have reached ordinary Dalits and other backward communities, but it does magic for the OBC, Dalit and Adivasi activists. His meetings with tea garden workers and boatmen in Assam, MNREGA workers in West Bengal, farmers in Bihar, coal workers and petty coal traders in Jharkhand bring out a contrast between the patronage politics of “labharthi” and that of dignity and adhikar. It is hard to say if all this would yield electoral dividends within the next few weeks. But these are undoubtedly the building blocks of counter-hegemonic politics that the country needs at this juncture.

It may not impress hard-core political animals — All this is fine, they might ask, but what about real mainstream politics? Isn’t this politics of the margins a marginal politics? How would this help take on the state power and street power of the BJP, the deadly mix of money and media that it controls, its political strategy and organisational machine?

This is where the metaphor of margins turns upside down. Unlike the Blacks and other racial minorities in the US, the Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs and religious minorities constitute an overwhelming majority in India. The upper caste Hindus are a tiny minority. The parallels of working-class politics drawn from European politics do not hold here as the bottom of the economic pyramid holds well over three-fourths of the population. The so-called “middle class” — a very Indian euphemism for the ruling class—is not the fat middle but a thin crust of Indian society. If it is a thali, much of the khichdi is lined along the edges. In India, politics of the margins is mainstream politics. The mainstream flows through the margins.