Of yatras in the fast lane

Indian opposition and wannabe figureheads have found their own version of America’s Republican Tea party. It is called the Fast and Yatra Repartee. It is turning out to be the year of fantastic fasts and simulated sojourns.

By Shivani Mohan

Published: Mon 26 Sep 2011, 9:09 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 10:00 AM

Fasts have long been a sign of the very Indian ethos of renunciation and moderation. The Indian holiday calendar is dotted with many days that prescribe various reasons for giving up food. Mostly fasts were perceived as a way of letting go of worldly pleasures and exercising self-control. Today they are a lethal weapon wielded by control freaks seeking whimsical demands, quick fix makeovers and political clout.

Yatras too have been a mythical symbol of Godly grandeur and congregation. When rathyatras emerge from many temples on special occasions in India, taking various deities in vibrant and august processions, it is akin to a Mardi gras like festive mood. A sea of humanity-always in ample supply in India- gives momentum to these spectacles in fluid, buoyant waves of fervour and faith.

Today both these forms of devotion and consecration are being used for political upmanship and fast-tracking fledgling careers and ambitions into the public spotlight. What is perplexing is that the opposition in India seems more interested in outfasting and ‘out-yatra-ing’ each other instead of highlighting pertinent issues and creating a mandate predicated on ideology.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who first used fast as an effective form of protest. In a similar spirit recently Anna Hazare captured the fancy of many and succeeded in shaking up the Indian parliament to work pro-actively towards an effectual graft bill. Such has been the popularity of his fast that even representatives from across the border in Pakistan have come to meet him and urge him to replicate a similar and much needed fast there. But as they say too much of a good thing is bad.

Now these shenanigans require just the right amount of theatrics and drama to unfold before they truly become people’s movements. Baba Ramdev who had earlier embarked on a similar fast ended up as a bit of a damp squib, what with a midnight lathi charge on his followers and a narrow escape for him, dressed in drag.

Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat fasted for three days for peace and amity in an extravagant pandal where he was crowned on a stately golden chair, triggering speculation about an obtuse symbolism about his Prime Ministerial aspirations. His political opponent Shankar Singh Waghela went on a competitive fast, his USP being that his was the more austere and therefore more sincere fast.

Advani who for long has battled a lot of ups and downs in his career waiting for the elusive chair, watching media catapult Modi into national fame has also decided to give it one last push. He plans to undertake yet another yatra as a final vehicle to remind everyone of “Hey what about me? (Mera number kab ayega?)” But such is BJP’s mysterious, unwritten dalliance with the RSS that he was quick to deny claims to the Prime Ministerial candidature on a recent visit to Nagpur. That Advani’s age is against him in this chariot race to the PM’s chair was further damaged by the now lurking doubt that he could also turn out to be a puppet PM of a different kind. And India has known the hazards of such a situation only too well in recent times.

Just when you wanted to dismiss Modi as a publicity monger as compared to the performer Nitish Kumar, well he too announces a yatra. What is meritorious service to the nation after all if you haven’t had a fast or yatra? And the complexity of the matter is that now Advani wants to start his yatra from Bihar and the plausible question is could Nitish Kumar being the chief minister be privy to it and displease certain sections who once saw Lalu stall Advani’s Ramrath yatras that preceded the Babri Masjid demolition? This yatra and fasting business is getting murkier than ever although purely from a fitness and health perspective one would like to see the kinds of Renuka Chaudhury, Venkaiyya Naidu, Jayalalitha and Gadkari go on a fast or two.

But jokes apart, the political jamboree in India is alive and revving.

Fasten your seat belts, brethren. It is going to be a grumpy, bumpy, ideologically-hungry ride to the next elections!

Shivani Mohan is an India-based writer

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