Mahatma of the new millennium?

Is it sacrilege to say that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi is the Mahatma Gandhi of the 21st century? No one's really interested in knowing what Gandhians think of it although they will rightly point out that the title Mahatma, belongs only to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, also known as the father of the nation.

Modi has captured the imagination of Indians just as Gandhi had done during the freedom struggle. Just as they believed that Gandhi would deliver them 'azaadi`, they now believe that Modi has curbed corruption and he will pull them out of poverty. Both Gujaratis are seen as selfless and of course, no one can accuse them of nepotism.

Like Gandhi, the PM is a great communicator. The former gave us slogans such as 'Do or die' and 'Quit India', the latter, 'Na khaoonga, na khaane doonga' and promised to end 'bhay, bhookh aur bhrashtachar'.

Like the Mahatma, Modi understands the power of symbolism. The former spun the 'charkha' and launched the salt satyagraha, the latter started his national campaign with 'chai pe charcha' and provided cooking gas to rural women.

Gandhi sang 'bhajans' and used phrases such as Ram rajya, Modi has delivered the Ram temple at Ayodhya. Gandhi championed 'swadeshi', the use of Indian goods, Modi says we must be 'atmanirbhar', self-reliant. The former said the lavatory must be as clean as the drawing room, the latter said, Pehle Shauchalay, Phir Devalay'. Gandhi worked 16 hours a day and led an austere life, Modi claims to do that and calls himself a fakir.

For a significant percentage of Indians, Modi is the new messiah, whether you call him the new Mahatma or mahayogi or mahanayak.

Today, the common man is led to believe that Gandhi handed over India to a bunch of barristers and anglicised gentry – 'suit-boot ki sarkar' - led by Nehru, who thrust alien concepts such as secularism on us. Modi is a homespun hero, someone who struggled against poverty, someone who speaks their language, who is wholly Indian in spirit, who is not hesitant about flaunting his Hindu identity and is unabashedly majoritarian. He embodies their hopes and aspirations today, just as Gandhi once did.

The Mahatma insisted that the end should not justify the means and called off the non-cooperation movement at its height in 1922, after the Chauri Chaura incident, in which a mob burnt a police station with 22 cops and three civilians in it. Modi's handling of the Godhra riots, in which there were over 1,000 deaths, was not seen as 'raj dharma' by his own party leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Gandhi was a voracious reader and corresponded with world leaders and philosophers, Modi mixes history with mythology, confuses science with obscurantist mumbo-jumbo and revels in selfies with PMs and presidents.

Gandhi is known for his aphorisms: 'The earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed; The weak can never forgive, forgiveness is the attribute of the strong; An eye for eye only ends up making the whole world blind.' Modi is known for : 'Achhe din aayenge, Make in India, Vocal for Local, More Crop Per Drop, 'Mein Bhi Chowkidar...'

The former wrote about his 'experiments with truth' and his life was an open book. The latter experiments with electoral truths or identity politics and only certain pages of his life are open to the reader. The former was able to assemble a galaxy of talent, the latter has assembled a phalanx of yesmen.

Before he became the PM, Modi spoke of putting up a Gandhi museum in Gandhinagar, featuring tableaux of 365 incidents from the Mahatma's life but what eventually came up was the Rs 3,000-cr statue of Sardar Patel at Kevadia.

Outside India though, Modi pays lip service to Gandhi. Writing in the New York Times on the occasion of the Mahatma's 150th birth anniversary last year, he said, "Let us work shoulder to shoulder to make our world prosperous and free from hate, violence and suffering. That is when we will fulfil Mahatma Gandhi's dream."

If Gandhi is being appropriated by Modi, where are the Gandhians? Why have they sequestered themselves in their 'ashrams' when they need to counter it in cyber space, as well as on the street? Gandhi would surely launch a satyagraha against the undeclared emergency of today, he would have joined the Shaheen Baug sit-in, sided with Prashant Bhushan in the contempt of court case and demanded the release of scholars such as Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Varavara Rao and others held for over two years in the farcical Bhima-Koregaon case.

What was the Rowlatt Act against which Mahatma Gandhi launched a satyagraha in March 1919? Iit allowed certain political cases to be tried without juries and permitted suspects to be interred without a trial. Gandhi was even tried for sedition in 1922 and sentenced to six years' imprisonment. Today, those opposing similar Acts are dubbed urban Naxals and anti-nationals and are being locked up under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, meant to curb terrorist activities.

There have been Gandhian efforts, such as human rights activist Harsh Mander's Karwan- e-Mohabbat, which met the victims of mob lynchings across India. However, they do not get the kind of support from civil society or the media that they deserve. What then is the use of writing scholarly pieces on the relevance of Gandhi on his birth anniversary?

The question to ask is not whether Gandhi is relevant today but whether we are relevant to Gandhi today. Gandhi stood for the universal values of truth and compassion and if we have forsaken him, it shows we have lost our moral compass.

Barely 300 people visit the Gandhi museum at Mani Bhavan on October 2, half of them are foreign tourists. The bungalow near Chowpatty beach in Mumbai served as Gandhiji's residence and the headquarters of the Indian National Congress from 1917 to 1934.

Gandhi learnt spinning here. The first call for mass satyagraha was given from here. The call to the nation to make public bonfires of imported cloth and to patronise 'khadi' was given from here, as was the call to observe January 26, 1930, as Independence Day.

The same Bollywood which is being humiliated today sparked a revival of interest in Gandhi with the two Munnabhai films. Why do we wait for Bollywood to make Gandhi sexy? Why can't we, as Gandhi said, be the change we want to see?

The answer is that it is hard work. Good, Gandhi said, travels at a snail's pace. "Non-violence is a tree of slow growth. It grows imperceptibly but surely." "And then mere goodness is not of much use," Gandhi said. "Goodness must be joined with knowledge, courage and conviction. One must cultivate the fine discriminating quality which goes with spiritual courage and character."

Coming back to the original question, one can say that Modi being called the new Mahatma will not go down well with his parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is virulently anti-Gandhi. In fact, RSS circles described his assassination as Gandhi 'vadh', a term used to describe the slaying of a demon.

Yet, the way we have forsaken Gandhi makes one feel that perhaps India was lucky to get freedom as early as it did. We also fail to appreciate the achievement of our founding fathers in defying all predictions and keeping India from disintegrating. And later, to prevent it from turning into a mirror image of Pakistan.

Maybe the point to ponder is that the world knows of only two thinkers from India; Buddha and Gandhi; and we have no use for both of them.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

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