After the battering in Bihar last month, one takeaway for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his sidekick Amit Shah is that instead of choppering around the hustings, the tubby twosome ought to have gone on a padayatra. In modern times, padayatras are a proven political instrument of (a) getting to know your voters; (b) getting to know the ‘ground realities’; and (c) getting to know your own girth. The padayatra is not only a Long March to Power, but also a Great Leap to Fitness and Smooth Bowel Movement.

It was the Father of the Nation who was also the Father of the Modern Padayatra: Mahatma Gandhi in 1930 undertook the 388-km Dandi March in defiance of the British Empire’s salt tax. He was 61 years old at the time, but a man in far better health and physical capability than 51-year-old Shah. It is no surprise that padayatris of the past were men of fitness and austerity — Gandhian Vinoba Bhave walking for his Bhoodan movement in 1951, or future PM Chandra Shekhar’s six-month-long padayatra in 1983 from Kanyakumari to Delhi.

Today’s politicians, like Lalu Prasad’s son Tejashwi, or the late Madhavrao Scindia’s son Jyotiraditya, or Yashwant Sinha’s son Jayant (our current junior finance minister), may be fit but they are not so austere. Not for these Baba Log the padayatra — and not because they’re westernised, when you consider that the “Million Man March” and other such padayatras are in vogue in the West. Older netas like Sharad Pawar and J Jayalalithaa don’t look like they ever did a padayatra in their life, even before their current health woes. No wonder they’re called political heavyweights.

Today’s democrats don’t even walk up-and-down the narrow lanes of a densely-populated urban constituency, lest voters interpret it as not having money for a flashy new SUV (and thus, no funds to win the poll). Perhaps the Election Commission should make padayatra a mandatory electoral requirement, much like declaration of assets. Perhaps we ought to insert ‘Padayatri’ into the Constitution of India’s preamble, just after ‘Socialist Secular’ and before ‘Democratic’.

Gandhiji himself may have walked a couple of mini-padayatras before his Dandi March — after all, he began experimenting with Satyagraha in South Africa in 1906 — but before him, India had been politically subjugated for nearly a millennium, and not one padayatra. In ancient times there was no alternative to walking, so a padayatra wouldn’t have made much of a statement. The only long-distance walking then was for religious pilgrimages, like Karaikkal Ammaiyar, who is said to have walked all the way from Thiruvalangadu to Mount Kailash — on her hands. The nearest thing to padayatra in pre-history was Lord Rama’s political exile from Ayodhya and his trudge, along with spouse Sita and brother Laxman, to the dense forests of Dandakaranya.

Thus, since the BJP in its efforts to dislodge the “cultural imperialism” of the Mughals finds that there were no padayatras in ancient times, has settled on the rath yatra. This may also be a repudiation of the padayatra, which, like the freedom struggle, is still firmly lodged in the collective mind with the Congress party.

The modern rath, however, has transformed way beyond the chariot in which Krishna articulated the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna; with high-technology and air-conditioning, the modern rath looks more like Walter White’s mobile meth-lab in the American TV series Breaking Bad . (And as intoxicating too.)

Padayatras are still in vogue in Andhra Pradesh, where in 2003 the late YSR Reddy did a three-month walk which got him elected chief minister for the rest of his life, and where in 2013 N Chandrababu Naidu did a similar 1,700-km padayatra, after which he was elected chief minister. There is no clearer evidence of the direct correlation between walking and attaining power in India.

Perhaps that’s why Rahul Gandhi — who a few years ago preferred to motorcycle into the Delhi suburb of Greater Noida (and that too, under the darkness of pre-dawn) to support a farmers’ agitation — has this year resorted to mini-padayatras in drought-hit areas and in Uttar Pradesh, where an Assembly election in 2017 is the next big electoral test for Modi, as he confronts a pumped-up Opposition.

Rahul’s padayatras, however, are nothing like Gandhiji’s or Naidu’s or Chandra Shekhar’s. His jaunts are mere six-seven kilometres long, the amount that office executives do on a gym treadmill, or the amount that women in those rural areas he’s visiting walk daily to collect water. For them a seven-kilometre walk is essential, inevitable and thus not very impressive. But then again, considering that his main opponents Modi and Shah don’t walk at all, even those seven-km stretches could improve the health of his party’s parliamentary strength (now at a woeful 45 MPs) when the 2019 polls roll around.

Aditya Sinha has written Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years with AS Dulat