As journalists, we can support or oppose a political party, like or dislike a politician. But that is an individual choice. As journalists reporting on events, we have to put our personal biases aside when reporting. At least that’s the ideal and that’s what we’re trained to do as journalists.
We know, of course, that such an ideal scenario hardly survives today. With a nation so deeply divided along political and religious lines, especially in the last eight years since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Center and in several states, we have seen these divisions reflected in media coverage.
An ongoing example of this is the Bharat Jodo Yatra, or what is known as Rahul’s Yatra. Rahul Gandhi has set out with a group of Congress supporters and others who are not part of the party to walk about 3,500 km from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. Just the thought of a group of people making such a journey, regardless of who they are, should pique the interest of the media. Even more so when the central figure is a leading opposition politician, one who has been the focus of much derision from the ruling party.
But if you want to know what is happening with this yatra, you have to search hard to find reports. There are reports, but they are skeletal at best, simply stating the route the yatris take and quoting either Gandhi after his daily press conference or some other Congress leaders.
You can also watch the yatra on YouTube on the official feed of the Congress party. Unfortunately, this consists of endless images of people walking with flags. The camera is always focused on Gandhi leading from the front. There is no comment. Every now and then you see him hugging children or the elderly or someone who has been in the news, like the mother and sister of murdered journalist Gauri Lankesh.
But that’s it. You get no sense from these reports of the places the yatra has touched, or of people watching from the sidelines. Who are they? What are they thinking about? Is this just a tamasha they feel they can’t miss? Do they even understand the concept of Bharat Jodo? These are some of the obvious questions that arise, especially if you are a journalist reporting on such an event.
But in the mainstream media, much of this is unanswered.
Instead, the media present the usual discussions about whether the yatra will bring political dividends, whether it will serve as a PR exercise to refurbish Gandhi’s image as he has often been accused of not being a serious politician, or why the yatra spends so many days in one state and not in another. While such speculation is inevitable given the rapidly declining political status of the Congress party—and the fact that, while Congress spokesmen insist that this is not “Rahul’s yatra,” he is the most obvious focus of it—there is another reason why the reporting must go further than this.
For example, when reporters are sent out to cover elections, they report what politicians say and speculate on the side of one party or another. But going out into the field also gives them an opportunity to get the pulse of the public, to talk to ordinary people, to understand the issues that concern them and to convey this to readers. Such reporting has decreased in recent years as media houses have cut back on investments in news gathering. But there is still enough of it to give a detailed sense of the issues that concern people during an election.
Covering an event like the Bharat Jodo Yatra should be seen as a similar opportunity. How many photographs can you continue to see of Gandhi beaming at some young girl or boy who has rushed up to him (carefully curated, of course), or of him bending down to tie the shoelaces of his mother or some other yatri? There is surely more to this yatra than that.
To find such reporting, you have to look hard and literally search the web. It is of course possible that regional language newspapers have given it more detailed coverage as the yatra passes through these states. And it is more than likely that the Delhi-based ‘national’ media will wake up to it as it hovers closer to the national capital. But when it comes to mainstream English-language newspapers, the reports with the kind of detail you’re looking for are so few and far between that you miss them entirely.
As always, the independent digital platforms fill the gap in reporting. For example Shoaib Daniyal from Scroll the people who joined Gandhi. The profiles give you an indication of the diversity of individuals that must be part of the exercise. He writes: “One of the greatest benefits of reporting on the great political palooza that is the Congress’ cross-border Bharat Jodo Yatra is seeing the diversity of people participating in India’s political system.”
Also in Scroll, has greater depth, perhaps because it is written by a non-journalist. Ramani Atkuri is a public health specialist based in Bengaluru. She joined the yatra with a group of friends. She explains, “For me, joining the Yatra was a personal protest against the state of the nation today, and a chance to show solidarity with anyone who stands up against it, especially the hatred and division. It was also a protest against the shrinking of our freedoms. I guess there will come a time when we each have to stand up and be counted.”
In Karnataka, Dhanya Rajendran from News minute have traced the yatra. Her reports provide both the political and the larger atmosphere of the yatra, as in . While it is primarily an interview with Congress spokesperson Jairam Ramesh, we also hear other voices, both skeptical and supportive.
Sometimes you come across a story telling about the places the yatra passes. For those unfamiliar with the southern states, many of these places are just names. Yet each point on the route has a history, sometimes of conflict between religious groups, sometimes between castes. Has there been a negative reaction from the dominant groups here? If so, was there any kind of hostility? It would have been interesting to know. But to a large extent that aspect has remained uncovered by the media.
Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj India is a supporter and participant in the yatra. But he is not a Congress worker. And remains interesting because it perhaps explains why so many from civil society, like Ramani Atkuri quoted above, have shed their reservations about the Congress party and decided to join the yatra at various stages.
Yadav explains why he believes the yatra should be seen as more than a political tamasha. Even if one does not agree with everything he writes, his opinion is worth more than a glance. An important point he makes, for example, is that this is a real padyatra, where the participants, including the leading lights, physically walk every day up to 26 km. This is unusual because politicians’ routine “roadshows” consist of them driving to a location where the media is present, talking to “regular” people for photo ops, and then driving on. Their feet do not touch the ground for very long.
Bharat Jodo Yatra still has a lot of ground to cover. And as I said before, it is quite possible that the so-called “national” media will wake up to it when they enter their territory in the North. But till then we can read and see some of the better reports of Bharat Jodo Yatra so that it will also be Bharat Samjho Yatra.