Rewind & Replay | That other ‘Bharat Yatri’: The long march, but short run, of Chandra Shekhar

Rewind & Replay | That other ‘Bharat Yatri’: The long march, but short run, of Chandra Shekhar

A prime minister at the helm with a resounding mandate, the flagging political fortunes of their parties, and a massive public outreach starting from Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu and spanning thousands of kilometres. There are several parallels between Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra and the Bharat Yatra in 1983 that Chandra Shekhar, not yet a PM, undertook almost four decades earlier against Rahul’s grandmother and then PM Indira Gandhi. Chandra Shekhar already had a reputation by then as one of the ‘Young Turks’ who had tried to take on Indira Gandhi when in the Congress.

At the time he set off on his yatra, Indira Gandhi was at the peak of her popularity, having managed to successfully dump out of power the Janata Party, a rag-tag group of Opposition parties that had ended the Congress’s uninterrupted run of power at the Centre in the 1977 elections. The Janata Party was in a shambles and riddled with factional feuds, and Chandra Shekhar was a part of it.

Chandra Shekhar  - Rewind & Replay | That other ‘Bharat Yatri’: The long march, but short run, of Chandra Shekhar Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar addressing a public meeting at Nagpur on 11.2.1991. (Express archive photo)

The situation was so bad that after the 1980 elections, Raj Narain — his electoral malpractice lawsuit against Indira had led to her disqualification and precipitated the Emergency in 1975 — had a fallout with Chandra Shekhar and their supporters battled to control the headquarters of the Bharatiya Lok Dal in Delhi.

In their book Chandra Shekhar: The Last Icon of Ideological Politics, current Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson Harivansh and research scholar Ravi Dutt Bajpai write that in September 1981, Janata Party (Kerala) workers N G Anthony and V K Rajamohan made a proposal to launch a mass mobilisation campaign. “The key suggestion,” Harivansh and Bajpai write, “was that among all the Opposition leaders, it was only Chandra Shekhar who could undertake the challenges of undertaking a padayatra to win back the confidence of the common people. Anthony and Rajamohan believed that among all the Indian politicians, Indira Gandhi commanded a pan-Indian presence, and the padayatra would help Chandra Shekhar gain nationwide acceptability to counter Mrs Gandhi.”

Harivansh and Bajpai recount that Chandra Shekhar tasked Dr Sarojini Mahishi, a well-known educationist who was the first woman MP from Karnataka, and former East Delhi MP Kishore Lal with assessing “the impact of such a padayatra”. The two, according to the authors, were sceptical about the outcome of the march and told Chandra Shekhar that “it would be a harrowing exercise, as it might not find popular support among common people”.

Chandra Shekhar then deployed Sudhindra Bhadoria, now a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader, to talk to young people. Bhadoria provided a more optimistic assessment. This helped the veteran leader make up his mind and he decided to begin his march from Kanyakumari towards the end of 1982 and conclude it at Rajghat in New Delhi. But the padayatra got delayed because of Assembly elections in Karnataka and Chandra Shekhar started on his marathon walk from Kanyakumari on January 6, 1983, a day after the elections got over. A young man named Suketu Shah, Harivansh and Bajpai say, “meticulously planned the itinerary of the padayatra” so that it would conclude at Rajghat on June 25, the anniversary of the declaration of Emergency.

According to the authors, only around 50 people joined Chandra Shekhar on the first day. There were other crucial differences from Rahul’s march now. “He (Chandra Shekhar) declared that every participant would have to depend on the generosity of local villagers and would have to survive on the food and facilities available. Chandra Shekhar recounted later that, throughout the long march, they only had to arrange for their night halt on five occasions — mainly because there were no villages around.”

Initially having planned to cover 25 km a day, the participants managed to fall way short of their target on some days and on other days they walked almost 45 km to make up the shortfall. As a result, Chandra Shekhar faced a number of health issues during the yatra but also had uplifting encounters.

“Chandra Shekhar’s most unforgettable image was of an old woman standing outside her hut with a lantern to guide the padayatra while they were passing through a thick forest. At each stop, Chandra Shekhar would address the crowd and underline the five most fundamental issues — drinking water, nutritious food, primary education, dignity for the SC and ST population, and communal harmony.”

At the start of the yatra, Chandra Shekhar started with Rs 3,500 and by its end, he had ended up collecting Rs 7.5 lakh, write Harivansh and Bajpai. He decided to set up the Bharat Yatra Trust (BYT) with this money and spent all these funds on rural development. The first Bharat Yatra Kendra was set up in Arcot in Tamil Nadu’s Ranipet district, and several of these centres were eatablished in different parts of the country. The management of these centres was handed over to the local people working on similar issues. In subsequent years, questions were raised about an ashram in Bhondsi village in Haryana’s Gurgaon district that was set up on land donated by the gram panchayat head. The Bhondsi ashram was owned by Chandra Shekhar.

The Bharat Yatra succeeded in its objective as the socialist leader from Ballia district in Uttar Pradesh vaulted to the centre of national politics. In the aftermath of the almost 4,260-km yatra, Chandra Shekhar resolved to work in 350 backward districts and “wished to relinquish the post of the president of the Janata Party”, Harivansh and Bajpai write in their book. But he “chose to stay within the narrow confines of active, partisan and electoral politics, and lost much of the lofty moral heights he had achieved after his long walk”, they add.

Chandra Shekhar was at the ashram in Bhondsi on October 31, 1984, when he heard the news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The subsequent pro-Congress wave wiped out any gains he might have hoped to achieve from his long march, and in the general election that year, he lost to Jagannath Chaudhari from Ballia.

This was the only Lok Sabha election Chandra Shekhar would lose.

On November 10, 1990, Chandra Shekhar would finally hit the pinnacle of his political career, going on to become India’s ninth PM, supported ironically by the Congress. Heading a mere 64 MPs, he would lose power in less than eight months, after Rajiv Gandhi used an excuse no one saw as more than flimsy to pull the plug.