The importance of being Gandhi
October 8, 2007
Reflections on Gandhi’s relevance
Rajeev Srinivasan on the value of Gandhian ideals today
Every year, on October 2nd, a few images of Mahatma Gandhi are trotted out, pious homilies are delivered by the usual suspects, “raghupathi-raghava-rajaram” is chanted desultorily by bored schoolchildren, and that’s that. For the other 364 days, Gandhi quietly gathers dust in a closet. This must be the fate of prophets, except for the few lucky ones: they are turned into little tin gods, and they turn over in their graves, so to speak, as everything they held dear is perverted by scheming camp-followers.
There is something oddly unsettling about the fulsome adulation of Gandhi, and I think I have finally figured out the reasons. The first is cognitive dissonance: it is hard to reconcile the fact that those who praise Gandhi the loudest are those who least practice his ideals – viz. politicians. The stench of hypocrisy surrounding the homily-deliverers is creating a miasma around Gandhi himself.
The second reason is the poorly-written textbook material that is rammed down the throats of young schoolchildren – the mythology of Gandhi the Pious. It’s as though he were a character in some lugubrious medieval hagiography: the Good Child who never did anything wrong, the Proper Young Man who did everything right. To skeptical children, he sounds like an unspeakable prig, a cardboard saint, someone loathsome.
Yet, if you remove all those layers of myth-making, you realize that he was a marketing genius. Gandhi figured out that the way to attack the British was to take advantage of their own myths that they had begun to believe – that they were benign “great white fathers” who were doing India a big favor with their empire. If we forget their theft of $10 trillion, that is. So they walked off in a huff, fully expecting Gandhi to call them back.
Gandhi also realized that to appeal to a fundamentally spiritual people, he had to speak the idiom and use the symbols of faith. In this, he echoed Vivekananda, who advised young hot-heads that no revolution had ever taken root in India that did not have a significant spiritual element. The way Gandhi went about elucidating his spiritual revolution was brilliant: his dhoti, his staff, his bald head, his toothless smile.
But then all that is gone, water under the bridge. The fact of the matter is that Gandhi would have been an embarrassment to the Nehruvians if he had lived much past Independence. He would have been the garrulous old man, the uncultured, rustic, poor relative in the living room, whom the Nehruvistas would have had to explain away to their new friends the Soviets and the Chinese. (In some sense, Nelson Mandela is in the same boat – Thabo Mbeki doesn’t quite know what to do with the old man. And Martin Luther King would have faced the same fate had he lived to old age.)
It would have been quite embarrassing to the Nehruvistas, having to humor the cantankerously obstinate Gandhi. Their entire world-view militated against his. Where Gandhi saw agriculture and small-scale village enterprise as the way to uplift the rural masses, the Congress were partial to Communist-style heavy industry and big dams. Where Gandhi praised the civilizational ideal of the righteous and divine king, Rama, the Congress were impressed by an obscure imported god called Dialectical Materialism.
Today, Rama is fading, as the Nehruvistas declare him non-existent and their ally the DMK calls him a drunkard. The old gods of the Indians are being packed off into the sunset. The new gods of the Indians are, in order: Cricket, the vengeful Semitic gods of West Asia, and most seductive of the lot, Mammon.
Much the same way the old Gandhians were erased from the official History of India written by ever-ideologically-dependable ‘eminent historians’ – where is Vinoba Bhave, where is Jayaprakash Narayan? The only ones acknowledged are the strange breed of pliant sarkari Gandhians who toe the line of the Government, never asking any difficult questions, even when everything Gandhi stood for is violated.
In the age of mega-malls and Koffee with Karan, is Mahatma Gandhi relevant? Future generations will question if he ever existed, not with the sense of wonder that Einstein intended, but brutally, with derision. To them, he would be another sanctimonious myth, an antediluvian shibboleth.
But there is still a brand associated with Gandhi. His sartorial self-abnegation and his self-sacrifice were elements of pure marketing genius, even if, as Sarojini Naidu lamented, it cost the country a fortune to keep him in poverty. He built a valuable brand, to the extent that he was, for a while, the most recognized human being on earth. As Coke or Microsoft will tell you, brands have lasting value.
Therefore there is an entire industry growing up around the Gandhi name. For instance, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi (no relations to the old man), landed at the UN this year, in the hope that some goodwill will rub off. Fortunately for them, some ancestor of theirs was clever enough to change his name from Ghandi to Gandhi. Nice little bit of prestidigitation there, indeed.
The Congress has, in general, attempted to co-opt Gandhi as their own, despite the irony that he wanted to dismantle the party, as something that had outlived its purpose. In effect, they are turning the tables by saying to Gandhi, you have outlived your usefulness, but you still have shelf-life as a myth and a symbol. And we will milk it to the limit.
Then there are all those people wearing blindingly white khadi kurtas, shirts and dhotis. This is supposedly intended to benefit the poor handloom weavers whose cause Gandhi espoused. But the white-khadi-wearer has become such a symbol of venality and corruption that it is a good thing the Khadi Board are now trying to make the fabric and its wearers upscale fashionistas.
Indeed, there is life yet in some of the things that Gandhi stood for. The old man was prescient about the value of the simple life. Today, with the worries of global warming and environmental degradation, “Small is Beautiful” and “slow food” and “buy local”, some of the things that Gandhi wanted live on, and we may belatedly recognize that the old man knew a thing or two, after all.