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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 11, March 11, 2023

Bringing Civility Back in Politics: The Moral Significance of Bharat Jodo Yatra | Supriy Ranjan, Pankaj Kumar

Saturday 11 March 2023


by Supriy Ranjan abd Pankaj Kumar *

The Pathological Predicament of Modern Leadership

The vision of realpolitik inaugurated by the great Italian philosopher Machiavelli in “The Prince” has had a lasting presence in modern politics. Machiavelli signified the cusp as to how we envision politics as a vocation entirely and purely driven by the pragmatics of capturing and maintaining power. In this vision, even compassion and innocence are strategic, bereft of any innate goodness.

Though dominant, this pathological Machiavellian view is not the only vision of politics available to us. Older and perhaps more profound, there exists an Aristotelian view which grounds politics in civic virtues. “This vision of politics gives centrality to the figure of the virtuous citizen, rather than to the sovereign as representative of the state.” In modern India, it was Gandhi who brought the Aristotelean emphasis on defining the purpose of politics to “form good citizens and to cultivate good character” to the centre stage.

Increasingly, this vision of politics seems to have been lost to us in contemporary India, replaced by a vocabulary which emphasises electoral results as the only parameter of calculating political victories. The increasing formalisation or rather electrolisation of Indian politics has meant that a nation which came into being on the basis of its vigorous and vibrant peoples movements, has nearly pushed these non-state imaginaries of politics to the margins of public memory.

Corollarily, our assessment of social movements is more often than not decoupled from the larger questions of moral courage, political subjectivity or forging solidarities and reduced to the kind of electoral result it produces. The larger media discourse on Bharat Jodo yatra has been no different.

Changing the Terms of Discourse

The question is, how should one view this Yatra? Should one see it as one last attempt to save the sinking Congress or as a mere bid to transform the image of its leader, Rahul Gandhi? Or is there anything intrinsic about this Yatra which needs to be acknowledged? One can lament this Yatra as non-significant, at least in terms of its ability to immediately change the course of electoral politics in India. However, analysing it merely in terms of its potential electoral consequences is probably not a very good starting point.

Instead, the enormity of its political messaging is something that needs to be taken into serious consideration. In a context wherein to even acknowledging the legitimate anxieties of minorities is politically suicidal, Bharat Jodo bravely dares to articulate and aggregate the rightful demands of minorities to have rights.

The Yatra reestablishes that more than the electoral battles, what is at the stake is the kind of society that we wish to live in. Do we want a muscular and revenge-oriented brand of politics, or do we desire a politics which is compassionate and eager to atleast listen to the dissenting visions? While there is no certainty of success in undertaking such a herculean task, however, it is a risk one will have to necessarily wager in order to restore the social fabric and to fight against everyday toxicity.

Since real politics has its own logic and compulsions, generally, such a transformational task is left to be accomplished by the fugitive democratic “moments of commonalities” produced in social movements. The very fact that such a task is being undertaken by a political party is itself worthy of taking note of. It is in this context in which Yatra’s insistence that mere electoral wins here and there are inadequate in repairing the social damage needs to be located. Towards this, the transformation of socio-cultural discourse itself is a prerequisite.

What is striking about Bharat Jodo Yatra is that its leading force, Rahul Gandhi, is playing on his strengths. Congress under him earlier tried to flirt with tropes of soft Hindutva and even attempted to exploit his caste identity. Instead of entrapping itself in these conservative tropes, Congress is now treading on an exciting political experiment.

Republican ideals of popular participation are a prerequisite for any healthy and vibrant democracy. While majoritarian politics tweaks this important fact to further its regressive agendas, Bharat Jodo tries to re-situate norms of civility at the centre of people’s participation. At a time when speaking against the state can lead you into serious troubles, if not anything, the Yatra firmly tries to reestablish the lost vision of politics based on civility, fraternity, and moral courage.

If anything, the Yatra gives Congress and Gandhi an opportunity to appreciate India’s deep-seated diversities and be sensitive towards them. It is not unknown to us that these diversities are often the bleeding grounds of conflict if not properly imagined and managed. The first step towards appreciating diversity is to redress the incorrigible fears that the majoritarian logic of democracy brings in diverse societies. More often than not, in such settings, tropes of violence, cruelty and the fear thereof become too banal to take note of. Against this routinisation of cruelties, Bharat Jodo is a much-needed healing exercise.

Resurrecting Civility and Courage 

Contrary to the majoritarian politics’s incessant harking back to a fabricated and exaggerated sense of past injustices, this Yatra grounds forgiveness as an anchoring principle for an alternative vision of politics. It tries to revive the strayed values of effeminacy, a sense of moral innocence, and pure and uncalculated love. For a person who has lost his beloved family members in gruesome forms of violence, the mobilisation of negative emotions such as anger, hatred and reprisal for the enemy is very obvious. What is certainly unobvious is to emphatically restate the idea that violence can only lead to the “barbaric recycle of violence.” In place of immorality and cruelty, this Yatra brings modesty and morality at the centre stage of politics. To succeed with such a style of politics, the mass psyche needs to be transformed, and Bharat Jodo Yatra precisely attempts to do so.

We live in times where the sheer seduction of moral cowardice is celebrated, times wherein it is easy for us to retreat into anti-political disdain for the fallen world. Bharat Jodo Yatra needs to be appreciated for its insistence on reaffirming the lost political wisdom of a politics envisioned on courage and civility. And as Judith Shklar rightly reminds us, this is the kind of wisdom that has been neglected and is needed in defence of liberal governance against the prevailing populist authoritarianism of our times.

* (Authors: Supriy Ranjan (ranjan.supriy[at] is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Pankaj Kumar (pankajkumar0316[at] is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and a visiting faculty at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru)

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