India & Bharat Jodo Yatra’s Big Mission: Why I Called Rahul Gandhi a ‘Tapasvi’

Sudheendra Kulkarni details his experience of walking in the Bharat Jodo Yatra with the Congress leader in Haryana.

11 min read
Hindi Female

Whenever I see someone embarking on an impossible-looking mission with a lofty purpose, I think of the following meditation penned by Maharishi Aurobindo. It is titled 'The Hour of God’. Human beings, imperfect mortals as we are, cannot achieve anything big without the Almighty’s help. Aurobindo’s words of wisdom have the power to speak to — and guide — any leader in any field of life who undertakes a heroic task. Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is one such audacious mission.


The Hour of God

THERE are moments when the Spirit moves among men and the breath of the Lord is abroad upon the waters of our being; there are others when it retires and men are left to act in the strength or the weakness of their own egoism.

The first are periods when even a little effort produces great results and changes destiny; the second are spaces of time when much labour goes to the making of a little result. It is true that the latter may prepare the former, may be the little smoke of sacrifice going up to heaven which calls down the rain of God's bounty.

Unhappy is the man or the nation which, when the divine moment arrives, is found sleeping or unprepared to use it, because the lamp has not been kept trimmed for the welcome and the ears are sealed to the call. But thrice woe to them who are strong and ready, yet waste the force or misuse the moment; for them is irreparable loss or a great destruction.

In the hour of God cleanse thy soul of all self-deceit and hypocrisy and vain self-flattering that thou mayst look straight into thy spirit and hear that which summons it. All insincerity of nature, once thy defence against the eye of the Master and the light of the ideal, becomes now a gap in thy armour and invites the blow. Even if thou conquer for the moment, it is the worse for thee, for the blow shall come afterwards and cast thee down in the midst of thy triumph.

But being pure cast aside all fear; for the hour is often terrible, a fire and a whirlwind and a tempest, a treading of the winepress of the wrath of God; but he who can stand up in it on the truth of his purpose is he who shall stand; even though he fall, he shall rise again; even though he seem to pass on the wings of the wind, he shall return. Nor let worldly prudence whisper too closely in thy ear; for it is the hour of the unexpected, the incalculable, the immeasurable. Mete not the power of the Breath by thy petty instruments, but trust and go forward.

But most keep thy soul clear, even if for a while, of the clamour of the ego. Then shall a fire march before thee in the night and the storm be thy helper and thy flag shall wave on the highest height of the greatness that was to be conquered.


For Rahul Gandhi, Bharat Jodo Yatra is his 'Hour of God’. The peril and possibilities of the hour are obvious to any discerning mind. He has it in him to save himself from its peril. He also has it in him to realise at least, a part of its promise — not for himself but for the nation. The distinction is important because God’s promise is meant only for ego-less leaders. It is accessible only to those who have dissolved their individual self — who have kept their soul "clear of the clamour of the ego” — and identified themselves completely with the larger self of the nation and humanity. They alone can experience the blessed hour.

The more I think of Rahul and his epic yatra, the more it seems to me that he has had at least, a brief tryst with 'The Hour of God’. He has "cast aside all fear”.

He is the most fearless leader in India today. And that’s saying a lot since fear pervades contemporary India and its institutions in a menacing way. Aurobindo’s words again come to mind: "….for the hour is often terrible…; but he who can stand up in it on the truth of his purpose is he who shall stand; even though he fall, he shall rise again…"

Rahul has fallen, and is rising again.


A Pilgrimage To Re-Unite the Silken Bonds of India’s Unity

I joined the yatra on 21 December near Padakhali village in Haryana. I walked with Rahul for over one and a half hours post-lunch before it halted for a tea break at a small roadside restaurant.

He walks briskly. This is notable because he had already walked over 2,700 kilometers since he began his ‘pad yatra’ from Kanyakumari on 20 September. His colleagues later told me I walked 7.5 kilometers with him, a minuscule distance compared with the 3,570 kilometers that he will have traveled before ending his yatra in Kashmir on 30 January, Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom day.

‘Yatra’, a Sanskrit word for pilgrimage, has profound spiritual, cultural, and civilisational connotations in India. Pilgrimage in ancient times was an arduous undertaking. When completed, it invoked a deep sense of fulfillment of one’s internally willed duty.

Even though yatra was always an individual or a family undertaking, historically, its cumulative outcome was ‘Bharat Jodo’ — to unite India.

Harvard’s renowned scholar Diana L. Eck in her book INDIA: A Sacred Geography writes that India has been united by her numberless pilgrims down the ages. “The pilgrim’s India,” she writes, “reaches back many hundreds of years and brings to us an astonishing picture of a land-linked not by the power of kings and governments, but by the footsteps of pilgrims.”


This view of ‘Bharat Jodo, of India’s essentially spiritual unity, was endorsed by Rahul’s great grandfather Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Speaking at the AICC session in the temple town of Madurai in October 1961, our first Prime Minister reminded the people that India has “for ages past been a country of pilgrimages.”

“All over the country you find these ancient places, from Badrinath, Kedarnath and Amarnath, high up in the snowy Himalayas down to Kanyakumari in the south…What has drawn our people from the south to the north and from the north to the south in these great pilgrimages? It is the feeling of one country and one culture and this feeling has bound us together. This conception of Bharat as one great land which the people considered a holy land has come down the ages and has joined us together, even though we have had different political kingdoms and even though we may speak different languages. This silken bond keeps us together in many ways.”

Rahul sees himself as a pilgrim in this hoary tradition. However, there is a crucial difference. He has begun his yatra to unite India because the “silken bond” that keeps India together is now sought to be broken by creating divisions in the name of religion and caste.

There is another difference — every village and town along the route of his yatra is a shrine for him. And every Indian of every caste and creed walking with him is a fellow pilgrim. Young and old, men and women, specially-abled, farmers, professionals, unemployed…all are walking with him. Celebrities have not joined the yatra in big numbers because of the fear of being seen with Rahul, but many of them can be heard admiring him in private conversations.


‘The More Difficult the Tapasya, the More I Like It’

We walked and talked throughout this small stretch, barring some breaks when he had to make time for admiring crowds who had lined up on both sides of the road in thousands. We talked about many things. It was invigorating — both the walk and the talk. I did not agree with everything he said, and I expressed my points of disagreement. But Rahul came across as someone who talks less like a politician and more like a philosopher who is trying to think deeply about the fundamental problems of life, nation and the world.

Fearing north India’s cold weather in December, I had wrapped myself in four layers of clothing, including two woolens. Rahul was protected only by his trademark white T-shirt, which has now become the talk of the nation.

In my tweet in the evening, I described Rahul as a ‘tapasvi’ — one who has embarked on a spiritual mission. ‘Tapasya’ or penance for a higher purpose of life, entails extreme self-suffering.

The physical hardship involved in starting the yatra with hoisting of the national flag at camp site at 5.30 each morning, accompanied by ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Jana Gana Mana’; walking about 25 kilometers a day, day after day; in hot and cold conditions; is only one part of the penance.

In Rahul’s case, as in the case of any 'tapasvi’, it is the smaller part. The greater part involves cultivation of, and control on, one’s thoughts and emotions. "This amount of exertion is not much for me. My body can take a far greater physical challenge,” he told me, and added, “The more difficult the ‘tapasya’, the more I like it.”

That Rahul himself regards the Bharat Jodo Yatra as his ‘tapasya’ reveals something important about his personality. “I must suffer. I must feel the pain. I must become a victim,” he said. That is the inner goal, a deeply personal goal, he has set for himself in conducting the yatra.

In his novel Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky writes, "Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth."

Rahul has that "great sadness” in him, and that is what has impelled him to undertake the Bharat Jodo Yatra. The fact that there is so much hatred and violence in India, especially in the political sphere, and that hatred and divisiveness are currently being used for electoral benefit and wielding power, is one source of that sadness.

But there is also another source. It is the "pain and suffering” of a large section of India’s population. Rahul has often referred to this in his speeches and press interviews. "They [mediapersons] keep asking me how I do not feel cold. But they do not ask the farmer, the worker, poor children, this question…I have walked 2,800 km, but I believe that is not a big deal. Farmers walk so much every day; as do farm labourers, factory workers – all of India, in fact.”

These are not well-rehearsed lines of a run-of-the-million demagogue who wants to impress his audiences. Rahul genuinely thinks that the "pain and suffering” of the common people of India should be felt by privileged Indians. He told me: "If I had undertaken this yatra in a BMW, the people you see here would not have come. They have joined because I am walking on the road, meeting them, and listening to them.”

The "great sadness” in Rahul is caused by another unacceptable reality of Indian society, which few politicians talk about. "During this yatra,” he told me, "hundreds of women have come to me and said, ‘My husband beats me up. I suffer silently. I cannot speak about this openly, but I am sharing it with you because I feel you can understand.’ Violence in India manifests in many ways.”


Only Politician Who Speaks the Language of Love

Our society is getting immune to the pain caused by violence and hatred. Which is why it is so important to know why Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajan was Narsi Mehta’s 'Vaishnava jana to tene kahiye je, peed paraaye jaane re…’ A true religious person is one who feels another’s pain and sorrow. The same must also be the definition of a true nationalist.

A true nationalist should be regarded as one who feels a fellow Indian’s pain and sorrow. Today both religion and nationalism are being practised in a perverse manner. Therefore, at a deeper level, Bharat Jodo Yatra is a cry of protest against such diabolical misuse of religion and nationalism for narrow political gains.

I congratulated Rahul for introducing the word ‘love’ in India’s political discourse. He is absolutely the only leader who speaks the language of love — and this shows how far our politics is divorced from the most fundamental need of human beings. When he says, "Main nafarat ke bazaar mein mohabbat ki dukaan kholne nikla hoon” (In the market of hatred I am going to open a shop for love), you begin to wonder if this is the reason why a lot of common Indians are beginning to turn an attentive ear to him. I said to Rahul, "Mahatma Gandhi explains love in a unique way. He says love is the active form of non-violence. Common people abhor violence. Therefore, what you say resonates with their desire.” Rahul responded by saying his concept of love stems from Buddha’s teaching of compassion.

I told Rahul that his yatra validates Gandhiji’s concept of ‘politics of the classes’ versus ‘politics of the masses’. “Politics of the classes pollutes, whereas politics of the masses cleanses.” With this conviction, the Mahatma transformed India’s freedom struggle into a people’s movement.

Sadly, the Congress party forgot this principle, lost touch with the common people, and has paid the price. Rahul’s yatra is the beginning, and not even a comprehensive beginning of the Congress regaining its contact, and hence, the trust of the toiling people.


Why India Needs Dialogue Between Congress and RSS-BJP

But here is the dilemma the Congress — and even, perhaps, Rahul himself — is facing. Has Rahul started the yatra for the revival of the Congress party’s electoral prospects or for a higher purpose signified by the term ‘Bharat Jodo’? Most people in his party are looking to him to lift the Congress from the abysmal depths to which it has fallen.

Undoubtedly, Rahul also wants it to happen. But even if it were to happen — and it’s unlikely to happen to any great extent in the short run — Congress alone is not going to be the remedy for the problems before India that Rahul has voiced during the yatra.

A major reason for this is that the Congress itself has been a contributor to many of these problems — be it poverty, unemployment, socio-economic disparities, corruption, decay of democratic institutions, the continuing border dispute with China or, even to a limited degree, Hindu-Muslim disharmony. Neither Rahul nor any other Congress leaders have so far presented before the nation coherent and convincing solutions to these and other problems.

Also, one has not seen enough of organisation-wide introspection over the many factors that have caused the decline of the Congress and the rise of the BJP. There is too much internal resistance to reform within the Congress. Therefore, even though Rahul comes across as a leader with a sensitive and a caring heart, he is yet to become a symbol of the hope, aspirations and dreams of a large cross-section of Indians.

But there is also an inherent danger in projecting oneself, or being projected by one’s party, as a ‘messiah’, as the ‘anointed one’ who can solve all problems and bring “achche din”. Sycophancy is deep-rooted in Indian politics, and Congress is no exception. Indeed, Congress has been its original practitioner. Rahul needs to guard himself against the distinct possibility of only "Yes Men” surrounding him.

What the Congress — and Indian democracy as a whole — needs is space for diverse voices. The experience of seventy-five years of democratic rule in India has abundantly shown that no party, not even one with a decisive parliamentary majority, can solve all of our country’s problems on its own. Only the broadest extent of cooperation among all sections of society and polity can. Cooperation requires dialogue — especially with those we disagree with. And when there is such constructive dialogue based on mutual respect, we often discover that there is indeed a common area of agreement with our opponents.

This is the point I tried to emphasise in my conversation with Rahul during the yatra. For ‘Bharat Jodo’ to be comprehensive, I said, there should be dialogue between the Congress and the RSS/BJP. The RSS and BJP have found a place — indeed, a large space — in the national mind today. And this has not been without ‘tapasya’ of thousands of their own leaders, volunteers and workers.

Not everything they say or do is right. But not everything they say or do is wrong either. To deny this would be arrogant and stupid, just as it is arrogant and stupid when some BJP leaders today talk about making India “Congress-mukt”.

The saddest part of the political reality under Narendra Modi is the complete breakdown in dialogue and cooperation between the ruling establishment and the opposition. This, I told Rahul, was not how the BJP was under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, both of whom I worked closely with.

I also shared with Rahul another conviction of mine. What India needs today, more than revival of the Congress party, is the revival of Congress movement. The Congress movement, which was at the core of India’s freedom movement, integrated the nation both socially and politically. In so doing, it achieved a holistic kind of ‘Bharat Jodo’. It brought together people of diverse backgrounds and ideologies, including mutually antagonistic ones to work together for a common mission — India’s national freedom. The same is needed in present times for India’s national rejuvenation.

How Rahul will continue his ‘tapasya’ beyond the current yatra, time will tell. But one thing is certain: He is beginning to earn a place in the nation’s imagination. And that shows, at the very least, that Indian society and Indian democracy refuse to be coerced into submission and silence.

May God protect Rahul Gandhi.

(Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation. His Twitter handle is @SudheenKulkarni and he welcomes comments at

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Topics:  Narendra Modi   RSS   Rahul Gandhi 

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