Chennai: With general elections just over a year away and assembly polls in 2026, political parties in Tamil Nadu have lined up a flurry of outreach exercises, the most popular among them being the padayatra (foot march).
“It will be a precursor to 2024 and 2026 elections,” state BJP chief K. Annamalai, who is set to embark on a statewide padayatra in April, told ThePrint. But the IPS officer-turned-politician’s foot march is not the only one in town. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), an ally of the BJP, has similar plans and so does the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK).
Tamil Nadu has a long history of padayatras, starting from C. Rajagopalachari’s Vedaranyam Satyagraha in 1930 to protest the salt tax levied by the British — a movement inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March — for which he was arrested and imprisoned for six months.
Then there was Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch M. Karunanidhi’s Madurai-Tiruchendur foot march in 1982, which came to be known as the ‘Needhi kettu nedumpayanam (long march seeking justice)’. As leader of the opposition at the time, Karunanidhi demanded justice for Subramania Pillai, an official of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR&CE) who was found dead under mysterious circumstances in 1980.
Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko too made headlines in 2013 with his foot march from Madurai to Cumbum to demand prohibition in the state. During the padayatra, Vaiko even had a chance encounter with then CM J. Jayalalithaa, who stepped out of her car and asked him, “Why are you straining yourself so much?”
Political commentators, however, are of the opinion that the concept of padayatras as a way to woo the masses, especially the present generation, has become outdated in the era of social media, and there is a dire need for innovative campaigning.
“A padayatra can increase the popularity of the leader embarking on it,” political researcher Raveenthran Duraisamy told ThePrint, but added that it “does not guarantee that you will win or will be able to translate the popularity into votes”.
Annamalai is not the only leader in the Tamil Nadu BJP betting on padayatras to shore up support for the party. In January, Vanathi Srinivasan — BJP MLA from Coimbatore South — took part in a 110 km-long march from Coimbatore to Palani.
Hers was a “spiritual” journey that concluded at the Palani Murugan temple, considered one of the six abodes of Muruga (Karthikeya). Srinivasan told ThePrint that her padayatra had three objectives: “to thank the lord for helping her get elected, to pray for the BJP’s expansion in Tamil Nadu, and to pray for the long life of Prime Minister Narendra Modi”.
As for Annamalai, his padayatra in April is set to coincide with a foot march to be carried out by actor Gayathri Raghuram, who ended her eight-year stint with the BJP in January after she faced a six-month suspension for “bringing disrepute to the party”. In her resignation letter, she had claimed that the state unit did not give “opportunity for an enquiry, equal rights and respect for women”.
“My padayatra from Chennai to Kanyakumari will begin on the same day as Annamalai’s yatra and it will go on for 40 days,” Gayathri told ThePrint. The idea behind it, she added, is to spread awareness about women’s rights and highlight the need for 30 per cent representation for women in parliamentary and assembly elections.
Asked why she chose to begin her padayatra around the same time as Annamalai’s, Gayathri said she wanted to bring attention to the “injustices” done to her. Clarifying that she is not opposed to the BJP, she said, “There are several complaints (of women party workers not being treated properly) within the BJP and I don’t know how many are taken seriously or how many have been looked into.”
Meanwhile, Anbumani Ramadoss, Rajya Sabha MP and president of BJP-ally PMK, is planning a padayatra to demand revival of the Noyyal river. PMK founder S Ramadoss (83) too had carried out a march in February — by car — in the name of protecting Tamil language and culture. A close aide of Anbumani said, “Several more padayatras will follow this year.”
Meanwhile, Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) chief K. Veeramani has announced his plans to tour the state, though not on foot, to spread the message of social justice and propagate the Dravidian ideology.
Oppn parties ‘bereft of ideas’
Professor Ramu Manivannan, head of the department of politics and public administration at the University of Madras, said padayatras are a tactic generally used by the opposition to mobilise anti-incumbency. A padyatra, he added, has a “perspective and a symbolic resonance to it”.
Duraisamy, quoted earlier, believes that the face of the padayatra is as important as the foot march itself. With his Bharat Yatra in 1983, Chandra Shekhar tried to project himself as the alternative to Indira Gandhi, he explained. Similarly, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s 1,500 km padayatra in 2003 and Vasundhara Raje Scindia’s in 2018 gave the impression that they were the most suitable political alternative in undivided Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan respectively.
“But they were all leaders who already had a significant support base, who were opposition leaders. Those who are not alternative forces, their popularity will increase and that is about it,” said Duraisamy.
According to Manivannan, for the youth, padayatras are not the preferred means for mass mobilisation in today’s social media age. “Earlier, during marches like these, people from different political parties used to come. But now, only people from the same party as the leader are the ones who come for the walk or surround the leader.”
Vanathi Srinivasan, who is also president of the BJP Mahila Morcha, added that the concept of padyatras is an accepted “mass mobilisation and mass contact” measure which does have an impact in the long run. Referring to her foot march to Palani, she said the exercise left cadres “energised and was an immense opportunity to establish a connect between the leaders, workers, and voters”.
While foot marches by politicians are still fresh in the imagination of the Indian voter, political analysts believe the current scenario in Tamil Nadu shows opposition parties are “bereft of ideas”.
In the 90s, Jayalalithaa’s convoy-based campaigning became popular, where the leader would traverse remote villages and address supporters from inside the vehicle. This came at a time when political parties were used to public meetings.
Analysts said this kind of new innovative politics is now missing. As Duraisamy put it, “If a padayatra were a means to victory, then everybody would embark on a foot march.”
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)