Kanyakumari: Surpassing the expectations of the most ardent of his followers and belying disparaging criticism from rivals, Rahul Gandhi launched his life’s biggest political activity — a walk from Kanyakumari to Kashmir that will stretch non-stop for 200-odd days, to try to change the opinion of a majority of Indians about their biggest current political icon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
As the inheritor and privileged scion-turned-political underdog took the stage at India’s southernmost tip of land — against the backdrop of the feisty fusion of three mighty seas — thousands of Congress leaders and activists assembled from all parts of India erupted with euphoric energy.
Slogans of “Nafrat Chodo, Bharat Jodo” rented the air. As Mr Gandhi saluted the National Flag, which he will carry across the nation, chants of “Vande Mataram”, among several prayers and patriotic invocations, rang out.
On the stage were two Congress Chief Ministers, Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel, several former Union ministers and former CMs, MPs, PCC chiefs, and functionaries of the AICC, CWC, Youth Congress, Mahila Congress, Seva Dal and the NSUI, among others. The Congress pantheon, or whatever is left of it.
But in the integrating spirit of the political walkathon ahead, it had Indians from most states, languages, castes, religions and social strata.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin did not take the stage at the Congress meeting, but came to the venue and met Mr Gandhi with warmth and camaraderie, to wish him well for the excruciating-yet-significant challenge.
Addressing the gathering, which erupted with a frenzied ovation the moment he took the rostrum, Mr Gandhi delivered one of his best speeches that was simple, clear, singular in purpose, precise in its message, sincere and touching.
Instead of hallowed, but often lost on the masses, laminations over the idea of India, or the death of the Indian Constitution, Mr Gandhi invoked the physically ubiquitous symbol — the flag.
The flag is for everyone, every Indian, irrespective of class, religion, gender, age, status or region. The flag, he said, using it as an easy analogy and euphemism for the nation, democracy, and all constitutional values, was not a gift but a prize won after a long struggle and tremendous sacrifice.
He spoke of how the flag promised rights and powers to each individual and each of our national institutions.
Yet, today, Mr Modi, the BJP and the RSS are taking away those rights and weakening these institutions. Judiciary, Parliament, Opposition, and media are all being threatened, crushed and controlled, to take away from us what the flag promises us, Mr Gandhi argued.
The reluctant Congress president-transformed-uncompromising warrior Gandhi said, “Like the British, Mr Modi divides us. He tries to make Indians fight amongst ourselves, even as a handful of his favourite crony businesses, operating like the East India Company, loot the nation.”
Thanking the people of Tamil Nadu for their love, calling it a state he loved visiting, Mr Gandhi stirred a strong emotional reaction: people were aware he was talking of a state where his father was killed.
Mr Gandhi said that even as prices go high, unemployment peaks at record highs, the currency gets weaker, the economy fails to generate jobs, Mr Modi’s mismatched policies, like a mutant GST, demonetisation and farm bills, had the net result of unemployment and disenchantment of youth.
Yet, the controlled media does not report to debate all this, it only wishes to hero worship Mr Modi, said Mr Gandhi, drawing a great cheer from the audience.
Mr Gandhi said that the BJP tries to intimidate people because it does not realise that Indian people are not afraid.
“We salute the flag. Let us now fight for it, for the values it represents,” he said.
Setting the agenda of taking on Mr Modi, Mr Gandhi said he would meet people whose voices were being crushed and listen to them.
Earlier, in a show of his best moment of decency and humility — missing values in today’s politics — he apologised to his translator when he realised he had inadvertently interrupted him.
Ghulam Nabi Azad, if he had heard the speech, might have rued his decision, and advised Rahul to first “Jodo” the Congress — because Mr Gandhi seems to have started doing it.
With the weakened-yet-energised Congress behind him, Mr Gandhi is set on a peerless journey; to discover the Midas touch, and change people’s minds and hearts.
If, as some argue, our nation is divided and hurt, the healer might be coming. With nothing more than an irresistible smile, a single message of unity, and unshakeable resolve.
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