The one question Gandhian scholars have learnt to dread is “What is Gandhi's relevance today?”, because no matter how many times it is asked and answered, the media never tires of it. The Mahatma's contemporary relevance remains a favourite theme for seminars, media interviews, debates and school essays and is earnestly discussed on October 2 of every year.
The short answer is that Mahatma Gandhi is in no danger of being rendered irrelevant. Witness the competitive Gandhi-giri on his 150th birth anniversary. Chief ministers, political parties, central ministries and PSUs vied with each other for ad space and airtime, in which to pay tributes to the Mahatma. Readers and viewers were inundated with stories, columns, quotes, interviews, blurry sepia photographs, giant ads and film clips, all the better to remember Bapu. Gandhi memorabilia and khadi sales doubtless registered an uptick.
October 2 is the one day in the year when Gandhi-love doesn't mean the number of the high-value notes in your wallet. It means paying homage at Rajghat and all manner of events from public meetings, book-readings, seminars, programmes in schools and endless replays of Gandhi's favourite bhajans. It also means a tussle over ownership of Gandhi.
This brings us to the other favourite Gandhi Jayanti theme: the commodification of Gandhi. There is much head-shaking and ideating over the crass manner in which the Gandhi 'brand' is misused/abused by politicians, private entities and governments, who use him in a variety of campaigns as a symbol of moral integrity.
The Congress routinely accuses the BJP of co-opting the father of the nation and castigates the RSS for allegedly having enabled the conspiracy that led to his assassination. Just as routinely, the BJP and RSS ignore the jibes. They continue paying public homage to the Mahatma and wearing their Gandhi-love on their sleeves.
This year, the Congress staged a 'Gandhi Sandesh Yatra' from its Delhi headquarters to Rajghat, led by former party president Rahul Gandhi. His mother and current party chief Sonia Gandhi administered an oath to Congress leaders and workers at Rajghat, to enthusiastic chanting of 'Mahatma Gandhi Amar Rahein'. Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, who placed full-page 'Gandhi' ads in national newspapers, took the opportunity to take a swipe at the BJP/RSS for having failed to recognize the Mahatma's virtues when he was alive and exhorting them to “apologize for their mistake”.
Not to be outdone, Home minister Amit Shah flagged off a 'Gandhi Sankalp Yatra'. From Oct 2 to 31, every BJP representative and office-bearer must trek 150 kms through his or her constituency to bring Gandhian values of “Swadesh, Swadharma, Swabhasha and Swadeshi” to the people. As an add-on, Shah asked them to turn the campaign against single-use plastic into a 'jan andolan'.
The appropriation of Gandhi by the Right is not recent. Narendra Modi positioned himself as a Gandhi-bhakt even as chief minister, extolling the genius of khadi and charkha as symbols of the freedom movement. As PM, he became a brand ambassador for khadi and swachhta, both intimately associated with the Mahatma. There was an embarrassing moment when the Khadi Village Industries Commission replaced Gandhi's iconic 'charkha' picture with one of Modi at the spinning wheel, but the PM wasted no time in expressing his displeasure at the switch.
Another reason why Gandhi can be deftly appropriated is his enormous body of work, which allows just about everyone to find something to agree with, cite and quote. Gandhi's influence can be detected in aspects of Deen Dayal Upadhayaye's philosophy of Integral Humanism, which was officially adopted by the Jan Sangh in the late 1960s.
Of course, many hard-core swayamsewaks still find it difficult to reconcile themselves to the BJP's new-found Gandhi-love. But they are increasingly shouted down by those who regard Gandhi as a saintly, well-intentioned figure, whose manifold virtues, love for the nation and obvious 'Hindu-ness' far overshadow what they perceive as his human errors (like being railroaded into signing off on the Partition).
Even the sangh parivar's conscious efforts towards pluralism and multi-culturalism can be seen from this perspective. Last year, at a lecture series titled “Future of Bharat: An RSS Perspective”, Bhagwat disowned portions of M S Golwalkar's works which perceive Muslims and Christians as potential threats to internal security. He went on to condemn gau-rakshaks–“adharma in the name of dharma”–and took a tolerant stand on LGBTQ. On the eve of Gandhi Jayanti earlier this week, Bhagwat refuted historian Ramchandra Guha’s characterization of Golwalkar's 'Bunch of Thoughts' as the 'Bible of the RSS' by saying that no one book represented the RSS view. Gandhi-bhakti and Golwalkar's more extreme views cannot go together, after all.
The overt reverence accorded to the Mahatma across the political spectrum is a reflection of his importance to Indian society and makes the question of his relevance meaningless.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.