Albert Einstein famously said of Mahatma Gandhi that future generations would “scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.” The millennial and post-millennial generations are here, and Bapu continues to be a guiding light.
From this perspective, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s directive to BJP MPs, to undertake 150 km-padyatras in their constituencies to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, is a sound political strategy. He knows although the Congress appears to have forgotten, that Gandhi is still the moral centre of the nation, the touchstone by which we judge our leaders.
Khadi remains the apparel of choice for politicians, but cynicism has replaced Gandhian values. Post-Nehru, the father of the nation was ghettoised in academia, the Khadi Village Industries Commission and ‘Gandhian’ institutions (the Gandhi Peace Foundation was, in fact, the epicentre of the anti-Indira Gandhi JP movement). Lip service is paid on Gandhi Jayanti and ceremonial visits to Rajghat by foreign dignitaries continues to be de rigueur.
The Congress’ neglect of its iconic leaders under the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty allowed the BJP to appropriate an entire pantheon: Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jayaprakash Narayan and even P V Narasimha Rao. Systematically, it subsumed the country’s most powerful symbols of nationalism, tolerance, secularism, social justice, constitutionalism, liberal democracy and sheer Indian-ness.
The PM frequently refers to Gandhi in his speeches. He did so even as chief minister of Gujarat. One of his first acts as prime minister was to promote the ‘fabric of the nation’. Khadi sales jumped by a factor of 164 per cent. Then came Swachh Bharat, dedicated to Gandhi and with his famous spectacles as its logo. It was, the PM said, “the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019”.
Reprising Gandhi’s broom-and-bucket, the PM swept the Clean India mission into being on October 2, 2014. The ‘shaming’ of open defecation by officials in the course of the campaign isn’t quite what Gandhi would have advocated, but it did bring about behavioural change. Brides have called off their weddings on the toilet issue, school children have demanded toilets at home and Bollywood jumped on the bandwagon with a ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’.
Even ‘Make in India’ was given a swadeshi spin, foreign direct investment in Indian manufacturing regardless. Most significantly, the Mahatma’s ‘last man’ principle, rearticulated by Deendayal Updhayay as ‘antyodaya’, was absorbed into the BJP campaign for Lok Sabha 2019. The result is that the BJP has replaced the Congress as the party of the poor. Its ‘big tent’ caste and the class coalition is enabled by its appropriation of Gandhi.
The Mahatma is the leading edge of India’s soft power. He has inspired leaders across the world – Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Barack Obama among them – and his model of direct action has been repeated ad infinitum. (Most recently by climate change activists.) Statues to Gandhi are omnipresent (including one in Parliament Square, London); schools across the world are named after him, he is an essential component of world history textbooks and October 2 has been dubbed the International Day of Non-Violence. Scholarship on Gandhi is astounding; every year, there are a dozen new books interpreting some aspect of his incredible life and vast body of work.
Many seminars have been held on the relevance of Gandhi in the 21st century, in terms of environment, climate change, direct action movements, conflict resolution, sanitation, religious tolerance, social justice, consumption-led growth, sustainable development, prohibition, vegetarianism, small-scale industry, economic models and so on. An unnecessary effort, given that he remains very real for millennials and post-millennials growing up seven decades after his assassination. “You’re such a Gandhian” is millennial-speak for a pacifist, gentle, non-violent individual.
The PM’s efforts to maintain the connection with Mahatma Gandhi at different levels – cultural and socio-economic - are both welcome and necessary. Hopefully, a little bit of Gandhi will rub off on politicians as well.
In the course of their perambulations from October 2 – 31, BJP MPs have been tasked with spreading Gandhian concepts of nationhood, unity in diversity, village self-reliance and environment. They will, of course, have to educate themselves before they can educate the electorate. ‘Ram Rajya’, they will find, does not mandate a Ram Temple, but good governance, corruption-free administration and people-centric policies.
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.