Narendra Modi took a potshot at Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra in Gujarat on Monday, but Rediff.com's Prasanna D Zore discovered an electrifying atmosphere as the Yatra passed through Balapur in Maharashtra's Akola district.
It's about ten minutes past six in the morning. The early morning sun is still a ball of soothing saffron. The nip in the air is biting.
Not caring much for the November morning winter thousands of ordinary folk -- children, their parents, old men and women draped in nine yard saris -- dot both sides of the streets with their friends and neighbours.
The street is occupied by Vande-Mataram-Bharat-Mata-Ki-Jai-Nafrat Chhodo-Desh-Jodo (leave hatred, unite the country)-chanting Bharat Jodo yatris, who have been walking with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi from Kanyakumari and locals from Balapur and adjoining villages in Maharashtra's Akola district, a part of arid Vidarbha region known for indebted farmers committing suicides.
Till September this region reported 472 farmers' suicides.
"We are here to bless Rahul Gandhi," says nau-vari (nine yards)-draped Sakhubai, a lady in her late 50s.
Sakhubai, her friends and children accompanying her are wearing layers of woollens -- shawls, sweaters, mufflers and monkey caps -- to protect themselves from the biting cold.
They have been waiting for Rahul Gandhi since 5 am, a full hour before his padyatra is scheduled to pass through this stretch of the service road that connects to a web of national highways connecting Maharashtra with neighbouring states.
A little distance ahead chants of Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata Ki Jai remind one of slogans used during prabhat pheris (morning parades) that were undertaken by the people of India after Mahatma Gandhi gave them the clarion call 'Do Or Die' during the 1942 Quit India movement.
These slogans are followed by Rahul Gandhi's clarion call 'Nafrat Chhodo-Bharat Jodo'.
File after disciplined files of human waves march through the street chanting these slogans, their pitch and enthusiasm rising with the pace of their march.
The atmosphere is electric.
Scores of volunteers distribute pamphlets that raise mic-bandh issues which Rahul Gandhi claims the Narendra Damodardas Modi government doesn't allow the Congress and other Opposition parties to raise in Parliament by switching off their microphones during Parliamentary sessions.
Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra, through these pamphlets, are bringing the same issues to the doorsteps of Indians.
"Let people know what is happening in this country under the present regime. Let them know how the money collected as taxes is being squandered off by writing off loans of powerful industrialists. Let them also understand how this government is blind to the fate of farmers and the unemployed youth of India. If you switch off our mikes, we know how to communicate what is happening in India to her people," says a national Congress leader, who is also part of the yatra.
Soon a cavalcade of VIP cars, police vehicles make their way through crowds in the street, their curiosity aroused due to the sudden vehicular movement. What follows next arouses the enthusiasm of those lining the streets to catch a glimpse of Rahul Gandhi. The eager-beavers want to talk to him, hold his hand, but the security ring thrown around him puts paid to their plans.
Behind a dozen of VIP security cars, one can see Maharashtra policemen throwing a defensive ring around Rahul Gandhi. Using strong nylon ropes, they create a rectangular mobile barricade around the VIP padyatri.
There are a few security-cleared yatris accompanying Rahul Gandhi -- dressed in his trademark white tee-shirt, khaki cargos and colourful sneakers (he seems to have changed this blue-pair of sneakers and traded them with green and black ones for the day) as he briskly walks past a surreal crowd, waving at them, raising his hands to acknowledge their presence, smiling at them, chatting with his fellow travelers.
The crowds around him chant Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata Ki Jai, Nafrat-Chhodo-Bharat-Jodo brings a smile on the face of this enthusiastic yatri as he shows no signs of fatigue that comes with walking for 72 days from Kanyakumari to the centre of Maharashtra.
The yatris, their fellow travelers are all charged to accompany Rahul Gandhi who began the 72nd day of the Bharat Jodo Yatra at 6 am from a Zilla Parishad school in Kupta, Balapur. The yatra would have covered a distance of 3.7 km till 10 am before it breaks for rest at Varkhed Phata, Shegaon, in Buldhana district.
Gandhi, who has come in some flak for projecting himself as a tilak-dhari, janeu-dhari, born-again Hindu, is scheduled to pay his respects at the temple of the 19th century mystic Sant Gajanan Maharaj in Shegaon. Later in the evening, the Congress, as part of its mass outreach and mass mobilisation programme, has organised a public meeting a few kilometres away from the temple.
Congress workers estimate at least a lakh people to be present at the venue to hear Rahul Gandhi speak out his mind on why India needs to be united.
As the yatra winds its way through the mass of people Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra remind one of scenes from the Mahatma's agitations, be it the 1921 non-cooperation movement, the Dandi March of 1930 or the 1942 Bharat Chhodo Andolan (Quit India Movement) against the British.
While Rahul Gandhi himself has been on record saying that there is no comparison between what the Mahatma did for the nation and what he has embarked upon bystanders do draw a lot of comparisons.
"My father would always tell us about the great satyagraha and non-cooperation of the great Mahatma," says Yusuf Mulla, a 65-year old resident of the locality from where Rahul Gandhi walked through. Mulla says his late father had attended one of the gatherings addressed by Mahatma Gandhi in 1933 in Wadegaon, Akola.
"The tricolour flags (of pre-independence Congress), the chanting of Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata Ki Jai all bring back memories of what my father would often describe about Mahatma Gandhi's meeting in Wadegaon," reminisces Mulla.
He has dressed three of his grandsons in the colour of the national flag as his small contribution to the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
As per a book Gandhi and Health @ 150 published by the Indian Council of Medical Research, the Mahatma after his return to India from South Africa walked 79,000 km till he was murdered by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948. That's around 18 km or 22,500 steps per day as per the data recorded in the book.
Rahul Gandhi having covered more than 1,700 km in 72 days brings his average to 23 km per day. While the Mahatma walked for India's independence, Gandhi's avowed aim is to reunite the country again and for achieving his aim he has used one of the most potent tools -- of a padyatra -- advocated by the Mahatma.