Putting the ‘Public’ back into the Republic – walking and talking with a man called Rahul

by Lalita Ramdas (with Ramu Ramdas)

 admiral ramdas bharat jodo yatra

By now many of you have seen countless images and video footage of the Yatra, of the growing crowds . And the figure of Rahul Gandhi – ruffled hair and increasingly unkempt and greying beard – walking, talking, laughing, dancing, hugging – seemingly tireless.

So is this a carefully constructed charade – purely a grand effort to promote the Congress ? how genuine is this man – how seriously engaged is he in the conversations that he has been having ever since the BJY began on Sept 7?

Many acquaintances, even friends, have openly scoffed or mocked us behind our backs – why are they joining “Pappu”- surely they must know better – he is no serious leader – he will never sustain this momentum – it is only a temporary public relations exercise …its only aim to bring the Congress back to power!

Mainstream media has blacked out all coverage of the Yatra – of Rahul Gandhi

  • of the euphoria – the expression and messaging – not only of demands and petitions – but of sheer, uninhibited outpouring of joy, of love, of freedom and a total absence of fear. It is clear that across the country – from village to city – the ominous silence was being broken – step by step. The cacophony of sounds
  • of drums and dols, of loudspeakers blaring out popular songs and music in every language and dialect – it could only be described as a Mela of all

We received the green signal at 9pm on Nov 2 that we could join the yatra by 0600 in the morning – a drive of two hours from our home in Sainikpuri. we knew it would mean waking up at 0300 –to hit the road by 0430! But Qayyum

  • our taxi driver (and a self confessed fan of Rahul), together with Suba Rao as body guard cum wheelchair attendant- were confident of getting us there. Both excited about the adventure!


We did not anticipate the nail biting tension of being stopped at three Police barriers as we got closer to the Ganesh Mandir at Rudraram on the Mumbai Highway. And I was grateful for my white hair and being able to speak Telugu – so I played my natural role as a stubborn old woman who waved a placard and told a well-rehearsed story, that there was a Chief of Navy in the car and we were late for the meeting with Rahul Gandhi. I carefully swallowed the word “former” to describe the Chief who had retired nearly 30 years ago! But we were merely reclaiming our right to travel the streets without fear.

How can I begin to describe the sheer exhilaration of being with hundreds of others – young – old – rich – poor – well known or unknown – walking and dancing or running to catch up and be within selfie distance of Rahul.

Fortunately I had decided to put a wheel chair into the car as a standby. And as the picture will show, Rahul Gandhi helped the Admiral into the chair – and then continued to walk – holding Ramu’s hand in his right hand and then steadying me by holding on to my left hand as I tried to match his scorching pace.

“Small Talk ? Sweet Nothings? what did you talk about for 20 minutes? “

We have been asked this over and over again and after thinking about it – decided it would be good to share some highlights of our brief encounter – with this ancient tried and tested mass mobilisation mode of a Yatra and Walking the Talk in ‘modern’ digital times.

Anatomy of a Dialogue – Nov 1

Ahead of our meetings with Rahul – Ramu and I discussed among ourselves what might be important points to focus on should we get an opportunity – given that there must be hundreds of urgent pressing issues competing for his attention. We prepared a brief note – a kind of aide memoire which we handed over to his team and used as a template for the conversations we did have .

The small group interaction at a typical ‘Function Hall’ on the afternoon of Nov 1st, gave us the best insights in terms of the style, content, depth and seriousness of the man and his intentions.



A Consortium of local Womens groups had prepared an excellent presentation

a real privilege to meet old friends and many new and impressive activists – Nari Shakti Zindabad indeed!There were crisp presentations by women representing LGBT and Transgender groups, Domestic workers; victims of sexual violence, and acid attacks, homeless, daily wagers and abandoned women and Muslim women from the old city. Rahul Gandhi was totally focussed on each speaker, made pertinent observations and asked penetrating questions. As the inevitable photo op was being organised, Rahul came over to meet the group and sat next to the Admiral. He shot off questions :

“So Admiral – what did you do in the Navy?” – “what ships did you command”

“what posts did you hold – were you ever aboard Vikrant?” At this point Jairam Ramesh intervened to add that not only was Admiral Ramdas a Navy Chief, but so too his father in law, Ram Dass Katari ,the first Indian to command the Navy after Independence. His response : “Oh really – that’s unusual!”

In the limited time available we spoke of reviving the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan on Global Nuclear Disarmament. This caught his attention, especially the reminder that Rajiv was the only world leader to have raised the issue at a meeting of the UN General Assembly. This plan was particularly relevant today when there are real threats of the two major powers using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. And he nodded gravely in agreement.

So as he was about to be whisked away – Ramu said – “I want to walk with you Rahul – and then we can talk” – at which point he shook his hand and said “but Admiral – of course you must.”

And so we did

Part II – Chalte, Chalte Charchalu – ‘Walking the Talk’

The rendezvous with the fast moving ‘walkacade’ [no cavalcade this!] was about 3 to 5 kms ahead of the night halt. Our delightful ‘handler’, Vikram – (one of the many professionals who have returned to India from the USA and other places to assist and provide their skills and time for the BJY team) – walked ahead of the main yatra to meet us – and steer us through various barriers – holding on to the precious cargo, one ancient mariner!

After ducking under two or three of the security barriers, we were there at Ground Zero – saying a quick hello, taking our places on either side of Rahul – and trying to keep pace. It was like meeting an old buddy – “Hi Admiral – glad you made it” – warm hug. And the photographers having a field day –

Anatomy of a Dialogue II – Nov 3 2022

We walked in companionable silence for a few minutes – just taking in the sights, sounds, and the experience. We then asked if Admiral could be put in the wheelchair so as not to slow down the momentum – to which he readily agreed. And so with Rahul holding our hands on both sides – the conversation began………..

There were some clearly defined themes and threads – partly along the lines of what we had written in the Aide Memoire. Without going into details, here are some highlights which we would like to share – because we believe they capture the essence of the Yatra, and indeed of Rahul Gandhi . Some are in the form of actual dialogues and some are attempts to provide insights into areas not so commonly discussed – but with which he clearly resonated.

Rahul: “Admiral – How many countries have you been to? What were the major lessons from a life of travel, being on ships on high seas and a career in the Navy?”

Ramdas: “The oceans unite not divide us. That is the enduring lesson I learned. Above all we learned the value of fraternity – tolerance – and our amazing diversity. The Armed Forces are a microcosm of the country. No unit of any of the armed forces can set out to battle if we carry forward prejudices about the caste or the faith of the comrade next to you. Today this secular fabric is threatened. That is why I am here today.”

The Experience of the Bangladesh War – the relationship with Pakistan.

Rahul : “Admiral – did you come out of the Bangladesh war hating Pakistan and feeling enmity towards Pakistanis?”

Ramdas: “I was taken aback by the question and said so. There was never a question of hating anyone – we do a job of work when called upon by our government.

But after any war, we dialogue and should be able to work together in a spirit of camaraderie and reconstruction. Far from hating Pakistan, we have a Pakistani connection through marriage!”

A Pakistani Connection – Rahul was clearly intrigued. He turned to me –

did I hear rightly when your husband said you have in laws in Pakistan?!”

Lalita: “Yes you heard correctly! Our eldest daughter met her husband, when they were students in the USA – and after waiting for over seven years – they were married in April 1990. We sought and got permission and blessings from the then Defence Minister and Prime Minister to travel to Chicago for the wedding. The family are US citizens but even so I have been unable to meet my son in law in India because he cannot obtain a visa to come and visit me.”

And this did lead to some discussion on our visa policies!

But Rahul persisted with another question:

“Admiral what were you doing at that time and how did you make it to the top job ?!!” – 

Ramdas : “I was serving as the Commander in Chief of the Eastern Naval Command at Visakhapatnam. We realised that this could affect my career, but we were equally clear that our daughter’s happiness was also important.

To our good fortune there were mature and open minded leaders at the helm, who did not allow this to come in the way of my selection to head the Navy in December 1990.”“However, these are personal matters – and we need to talk about larger concerns about the country and the Yatra” –

But Rahul shook his head and said emphatically – “you are wrong Admiral – you cannot separate the personal and the political. We need to view these events in the larger context of how mind sets of our own people are created and how we should be able to shape and determine our relations with our neighbours as indeed within our own country. All too often we allow these prejudices to influence our actions on the larger questions – including on National Security and Foreign Policy”

This was both surprising and an eye opener as to the vision of the man. And we were pulled into a totally unexpected and unplanned trajectory.

In our memo we had raised the issue of the treatment of our Minorities especially Muslims – the CAA – NRC . Our basic concerns – can we really build a democracy when our largest minority are constantly targeted as potential anti nationals or terrorists and being told to “go to Pakistan”.

And this, in turn, led us to speak briefly and agree in broad terms, that there could never be National Security without Human Security. And the bedrock for that would have to be Peace – internal and external. This alone would reduce the grotesque expenditure on weapons and arms – so that the human development needs of people could be met – in our country and in the

These would include border issues with our neighbours – especially China and Pakistan, revitalising SAARC and working together towards a constructive relationship with all our neighbours in South Asia; resolving the long standing imbroglio over Kashmir as also the more recent concern over Art 370.

It was refreshing to hear him assert his confidence that we would find a solution in a couple of years.

  • It was in the above context that we once again raised the urgency of revisiting the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan for Global Nuclear Abolition. This could be a big step for human kind, and India could take on a leadership role as we did in the era of non-alignment.
  • So our conversation moved back and forth between the personal, the political, and ideological. We explained some of the reasons that drew an octagenarian former Service Chief and his wife, to support the BJY , and not simply from our armchairs or internet. We also explained that our purpose of being here today was to join in solidarity with millions of people who were showing their will and desire to be part of this unique and much needed nationwide effort. Our collective hope is to help restore and rebuild the basic fabric of the nation as envisioned in the
  • Some Recommendations for Inclusive Mobilisation – post BJY
  • Education is Key

We were in agreement with Rahul’s concerns about the importance of an awareness creating education, interaction and dialogue, to enable the much needed change in mindsets among our people. This alone could in time prepare the ground for finding mature responses and seeking workable solutions to the many tricky conflict areas we face.

Create a volunteer force of boys and girls, men and women, who would dedicate time, thought and effort to a powerful national movement for a new road map towards an ideal articulated decades ago.

Make humanism, compassion and love the driving force of all our curricular and non curricular efforts whether in or out of the classroom

Build local structures at all levels to counter the vicious , hate driven right wing and Hindutva ideology that continues to be propagated by the Sangh Parivar, and executed by the political arm from local and grass roots levels.

Motivate and mobilise a powerful Aman [peace] network of active and motivated citizens at local levels. There can be no better way to counter the Naphrat ‘tolis’ [Hate Gangs] than by Mohabbat Karavans.[Caravans of Love] Can the BJY begin by sowing the seeds of such start ups – NOT just of any single political party – but a diverse group drawn from all sections in a local village, basti, community ? These will form the much needed grass roots base for a nation wide Peace, Reconciliation and Reconstruction Mission.

Says our in house Ancient Mariner:

“For me, as a sailor, the rivers and oceans of our country and our region – are the best metaphor for the vision and mission of the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the Essence of India. Just as the rivers flow freely and join the mighty ocean surrounding us on all sides – so too this pad yatra is like the many streams of people, languages, cultures, faiths, that come together in that vast and ancient concept we call “Vasudaiva Kuttumbakam” – the World is One Family.

“Don’t walk behind me: I may not lead Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow

Just walk beside me and be my friend” – Albert Camus

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