July 04, 2020
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Up For Grabs Mahatma

The PM’s appropriation of Gandhi is helping the BJP shape a new political persona

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Up For Grabs Mahatma
Saint’s Trail
Modi visits Gandhi’s bust in Johannesburg, South Africa
Photograph by PTI
Up For Grabs Mahatma

Cultural amnesia. It’s what makes historically ironic app­ropriations possible. Amid a violent anti-cow-slaughter campaign in many states, these words by ­Mahatma Gandhi have a prophetic ring to them: “How can I force ­anyone not to slaughter cows unless he is himself so disposed? It is not as if there were only Hindus in the Indian Union. There are Muslims, Parsis, Christians and other religious groups here.” He said it during a prayer discourse on July 25, 1947.

The NDA government is all set to launch a year-and-a-half-long commemoration to mark 100 years of the Satyagraha movement, launched on April 11, 1917. Exactly a century ago to the day, the Mahatma started his inf­luential Satyagraha (literally, ‘holding on to truth’) movement from Bihar’s Cham­paran district. The celebrations will culminate in Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in 2019, to be marked by a bigger spectacle. It could hardly have escaped national attention. The BJP’s embrace of Gandhi and ­national icons, from Sardar Patel to Bhagat Singh and B.R. Ambedkar, is helping the party forge a new political persona.

Satyagraha was pivotal in the struggle against the British rule, rooted in a philosophy of upright moral courage and non-violent resistance. The ­proposed Champaran celebrations are being called “Swach­chagraha” or hol­ding on to cleanliness. Gandhi will come alive through his own writings, speeches, video footages and pho­tographs in a country that has mostly forgotten him. Cloud-based shows on Gandhian tenets, the civil disobedience movement, gram swaraj—the concept of villages as vib­rant and self-sufficient ‘republics’—should tra­nsfix viewers. The celebrations will pan out from the first places where the Satyagraha mov­ements occurred: Champaran in Bihar and Kheda and Ahmedabad, in Gujarat.

Modi has constantly invoked the Mahatma. It’s a break from the problematic relationship the early Hindu Right had had with Gandhi. The father of the nat­ion figures prominently in many of Modi’s initiatives for a ‘new India’. How does having Gandhi help?

The first photograph of Modi inside his office suite, tweeted by his handle, showed him paying obeisance to a framed portrait of the Mahatma, underpinning the pious start of a new journey. On October 2, 2014, Modi swept the road outside the 150-year-old Balmiki Temple with a broom in the heart of Delhi. It was Gandhi’s birthday and a fitting occasion to launch Swachch Bharat, a campaign for a filth-free India. Gandhi had once said cleanliness was more important than Independence. The sheer symbolism worked. Bollywood ­actors, cricket icons, politicians, among millions, were seen wielding the broomstick. Modi had fired the popular imagination about Gandhi again.

A month before he kicked off Swachch Bharat, Modi addr­essed a jubilant crowd at New York’s Madison Square on his US visit. Gandhi figured in that speech too. There was a slip-up though. Modi mis­pronounced Gandhi’s first name as “Mohanlal”. Unfazed, he went on to under­score how Gandhi, an expa­triate “like you”, returned to India to serve his country.

Gandhi launched his Satyagraha from Champaran, where farmers were forced by the British to grow indigo instead of food grains.

Gandhi launched his Satyagraha from Champaran, where poor farmers were forced by the British to grow indigo, a lucrative dye, instead of food grains. Modi announced his government’s plans to mark “100 years of the Champaran Satyagraha” in his last radio talk show, Mann Ki Baat, on March 26.

“It was the Champaran Satyagraha that brought to the fore Mahatma Gandhi’s organisational skills and his strong ability to gauge the pulse of Indian society,” the PM said in the show. Modi himself is thought of as someone who knows that ‘pulse’ of a changing India.

For the BJP, Hindutva ideologue V.D. Savarkar and Gandhi coexist in harmony. “Modi is someone who is highly inspired by Gandhiji’s ideals and he has emulated Mahatma’s methods in mobilising people for developmental programmes,” says BJP spokesperson G.V.L. Nara­simha Rao. Modi believes, he says, that development is only possible by involving the masses, just as Gandhi did.   

The view from political scientists is that there are basic differences between Gandhian teachings and the tenets of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological parent. To be sure, the Hindu Right has had to bear the stigma of assassinating the Mahatma. Now after seven decades, is it trying to make amends?

“With the exception of Nehru, the Sangh has tried to appropriate the ­entire nationalist pantheon, from Gandhi to Patel to Ambedkar, among others. Ideological particularities, historical facts and political differences do not seem to matter in the process of inc­orporating these major figures into the BJP’s own legacy,” says Ananya Vajpeyi, the author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India. “These gestures of claiming a Gandhi or an Ambedkar help to create a consensus and to usher the Hindu Right into a nat­ional mainstream of belief and opinion that has held sway since Independence.”

According to sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, the Congress looks “pristine” because of Gandhi.  He doesn’t think the BJP’s embrace of Gandhi goes deep. The RSS’s tenets, he argues, are “very different from the proactive pacifism” Gandhi declared from Champaran. Yet, not ­appropriating Gandhi is not an ­option. “It’s for legitimacy.”

The Congress and the Left, however, appear to have long abandoned cham­pioning Gandhi.

The Congress claims it has never steered away from Gandhi. “Gandhian thought and Congress are one. It is their (Right-wing) thinking that killed Gandhi,” says party leader Randeep Singh Surjewala.  Nehru married Gandhian values with modernity, Indira Gandhi’s pro-poor policies, Rajiv Gandhi’s technological revolution that was great leveller and UPA’s rights-based policies were all manifestations of what Gandhi espoused, he says.  

On the other hand, Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP Tapan Sen is open about the Left’s quibbles with Gandhi. “The BJP’s ­embrace of Gandhi is dubious. We have minced no words about disagreeing with Gandhi’s economic prescription based on trusteeship that ­includes private capitalists. But, at the same time,  we have ­always been ­respectful of his ­humanism,” he says.

Nishikant Kogle, a Gandhian scholar at Tripura University , says Modi frequently evokes Gandhi’s memory because the Mahatma is inarguably India’s greatest icon around the world and also a unifying national symbol of a globalising Bharat.

The BJP now has the largest share of MLAs among all ­parties at 1,382 leg­is­lators at an all-India level, the result of a successful a political template stru­ctured around economic transfor­mation and nationalism.

According to Vajpeyi, championing Gandhi “is a way to counte­ract the RSS’s own ghettoisation and marginalisation vis-à-vis the Congress-led, secular idea of India that has been the default and the dominant vision thus far.”

Ultimately, all this helps build a political consensus, says Vajpeyi. “The noise, the symbolism and the messaging are to say that ‘we are no longer defined as the Right, we are the mainstream, because in India there is a capacious mainstream of which you must be a part of.”

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