His swollen and blistered feet wrapped in bandages but his pace brisk in the scorching 110-degree midday heat, Chandra Shekhar limped into New Delhi today in an attempt to literally walk his once-powerful Janata Party out of political oblivion.
By his own account, he covered 2,400 miles, but he faces possibly another generation to go before he succeeds.
Once the dazzling Young Turk of the old Congress Party, then the fervently leftist conscience of the briefly supreme Janata alliance and now the president of the fractious opposition party, Shekhar was completing a 2,400-mile march against poverty and misery from the southern tip of India to the seat of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's power.
It was primary politics, Indian-style, but it was also a microcosmic revival of an era when Mahatma Gandhi caught the world's imagination with a symbolic march to protest a British salt tax, and when his disciple, Vinoba Bhave, trekked 15,000 miles in 10 years for the cause of land reform.
"I am not Mahatma Gandhi nor do I aspire to become one," protested Shekhar when the inevitable analogy was drawn. "I have seen the sufferers through their eyes, and from this I draw my satisfaction," he added in an interview earlier this week as he walked through Arungabad, about 25 miles south of the capital.
Despite his disclaimer, Shekhar's grueling bharat yatra, or protest march, has helped revive the image of the failed Janata among Indians, who respect gestures of sacrifice by their leaders and seek an alternative to what many view as a grass-roots political vacuum overwhelmed by the dynasty formed by the former leader Jawahar Lal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi, the current prime minister. Indira Gandhi is not related to Mahatma Gandhi.
"He is our hero. He is totally committed to the principles of Mahatma Gandhi. He will lead us out of the corruption and money power that rules India today," said Sundra Ajad, a 28-year-old marcher from Karnal, north of New Delhi.
Karan Singh, a young science teacher from Arungabad, said, "He is the future. The old leaders will go, and he will be the future of India."
Shekhar, however, who at 55 appears to have mellowed beneath his fiery socialist rhetoric, is more cautious about his future and that of the divided opposition parties.
"Everybody who is a politician wants to be prime minister, but I don't want something I can't achieve. I know the Janata Party is not powerful enough today. The powerful lobbies who control the money are not interested in me," said Shekhar, a member of parliament for 21 years.
Moreover, he said, the same Janata alliance that defeated Indira Gandhi in March 1977, but that was then ousted by Gandhi two years later, would fail if it tried to reorganize along the same lines.
"What we must have are different people, a different perspective. In 1977 we had politics of survival, and now it must be politics of renewal," Shekhar said at a rest stop in Arungabad.
"I have tried to unite the opposition parties and I will continue to try to unite them," he added. "But if the vision is not clear--if the perspective is not clear--that the basic right to clean drinking water for miserably poor people is our first priority, there won't be a united opposition."
S. C. Mohunta, a Janata member of Parliament from Haryana who followed Shekhar's march with about 200 other supporters, agreed that Gandhi's Congress (I) Party cannot be defeated in the national elections that must be held by 1985 unless the bickering opposition is united under a new, populist-based appeal for Janata. That appeal, the party leaders said, slowly emerged during Shekhar's six-month walk through rural India.
Thousands of supporters joined the march on its approach to the capital today, where Shekhar addressed an enthusiastic rally and said he intends to continue his campaign in Punjab and other northern Indian states.
But in the scorched, dusty plains of the countryside, the march was less grandiose. Averaging 15 miles a day, Shekhar's weary parade was forced to stop frequently to escape the burning central Indian sun.
Once a week, the marchers were examined by a doctor for fatigue and foot sores, and a truck carried dozens of shoes and sandals to replace those worn out on the hot tar road.
Leading the marchers and carrying a party flag was a 25-year-old blind music teacher, Sabha Pati, who began the walk with Shekhar in Andhra Pradesh.
Gulping glasses of water at one stop and soaking his swollen feet, Shekhar was asked about some Congress (I) politicians' claims that he is engaged in campaign gimmickry.
Laughing sardonically, he said, "They see their own image in a mirror. Let them walk 4,000 kilometers 2,400 miles for a gimmick."