Modi’s own Gandhi par­al­lels mak­ing waves

Cen­te­nary of protests ral­lies prime min­is­ter’s crit­ics

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY JA­SON OVERDORF

NEW DELHI, IN­DIA | In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi raised a lot of eye­brows here re­cently when he de­cided it was a good idea to wrap the na­tion’s ad­vances in plumb­ing to­gether with a cel­e­bra­tion of Ma­hatma Gandhi.

An au­di­ence of smit­ten fol­low­ers and party faith­ful broke into ap­plause as Mr. Modi marked the 100th an­niver­sary of Gandhi’s first cam­paign against Bri­tish rule in colo­nial In­dia in May 1917, link­ing it to his own Swach­ha­graha — “Clean In­dia” — cam­paign to boost eco­nomic per­for­mance by end­ing public hu­man defe­ca­tion and clean­ing up the coun­try’s no­to­ri­ously pol­luted and dusty cities.

Gandhi pushed for an in­de­pen­dent In­dia via what he called satya­graha, or non­vi­o­lent civil dis­obe­di­ence. “The aim of satya­graha was in­de­pen­dence, and the aim of Swach­ha­graha is to cre­ate a clean In­dia,” Mr. Modi told the crowd. “A clean In­dia helps the poor the most.”

For any other prime min­is­ter, hon­or­ing the man of­ten called the Fa­ther of the Na­tion would be a nat­u­ral part of the job. But, de­spite his pop­u­lar­ity, Mr. Modi re­mains a po­lar­iz­ing fig­ure, and crit­ics say the prime min­is­ter’s at­tempt to ap­pro­pri­ate Gandhi’s

legacy to ben­e­fit his Hindu na­tion­al­ist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and his own cult of per­son­al­ity is po­lit­i­cal sac­ri­lege.

“Modi has re­duced one of the most in­ter­est­ing and cel­e­brated public lives of the 20th cen­tury to toi­let pa­per to clean his im­age,” said Sopan Joshi, a re­search fel­low at the New Delhi-based Gandhi Peace Foun­da­tion.

Launched in 2014, the Clean In­dia cam­paign has built nearly 40 mil­lion toi­lets, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures.

Gandhi’s first satya­graha move­ment mo­bi­lized peas­ants grow­ing in­digo in the Cham­paran dis­trict of the north­ern state of Bi­har against their land­lords and the Bri­tish colo­nial gov­ern­ment in 1917. The strat­egy of pas­sive re­sis­tance would set in mo­tion a move­ment that would force the Bri­tish out of In­dia 30 years later.

Satya­graha is a Hindi term typ­i­cally trans­lated as “an in­sis­tence on truth.”

Mr. Modi’s gov­ern­ment has linked the two ef­forts and em­barked on an 18-month cel­e­bra­tion of Gandhi’s satya­graha move­ment that is slated to cul­mi­nate in a mas­sive spec­ta­cle in Oc­to­ber 2019 to honor the 150th an­niver­sary of the revered leader’s birth.

“The Bharatiya Janata Party and Gandhi have many com­mon­al­i­ties on core is­sues, like cul­tural na­tion­al­ism,” said party spokesman Rakesh Sinha, re­fer­ring to Mr. Modi’s rhetoric about In­dia’s unique­ness and its his­tory as a cra­dle of Hin­duism.

But crit­ics say the be­hav­ior of Mr. Modi’s sup­port­ers flies in the face of Gandhi’s phi­los­o­phy of tol­er­ance and non­vi­o­lence.

Mr. Modi was hailed as a mold-break­ing fig­ure when he was elected in 2014, a pro-busi­ness politi­cian who would jump-start the scle­rotic and reg­u­la­tion-rid­den In­dian econ­omy. But he also came to of­fice un­der a cloud stem­ming from ac­cu­sa­tions that he stood idle in 2002 as Hin­dus mas­sa­cred more than 1,000 Mus­lims over the course of three days in Gu­jarat, where he was chief min­is­ter at the time.

A spe­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion team rep­re­sent­ing the Supreme Court found no ev­i­dence to sup­port those charges in 2012. But even in the af­ter­math of the 2002 vi­o­lence, Mr. Modi re­ferred to re­lief camps for dis­placed Mus­lims as “breed­ing cen­ters” and joked about the mi­nor­ity group’s rep­u­ta­tion for bear­ing many chil­dren due to laws that al­low Mus­lim men to have up to four wives.

Since he be­came prime min­is­ter in 2014, Hindu vig­i­lantes have lynched Mus­lims for al­legedly eat­ing beef or trans­port­ing cows for slaugh­ter, van­dal­ized Chris­tian churches and stepped up a cam­paign against ro­mances be­tween Mus­lim men and Hindu women — which right-wing Hindu groups call “love ji­had.”

Fa­vor­ing Hin­dus

Crit­ics say Mr. Modi has not spo­ken out or acted swiftly enough against those vig­i­lantes be­cause he still ad­heres to the Hindu na­tion­al­ist ide­ol­ogy of Hin­dutva, which seeks to el­e­vate Hin­duism to a spe­cial place in tech­ni­cally sec­u­lar In­dia.

“Killings of Mus­lims for al­legedly eat­ing beef and van­dal­iz­ing of churches would have re­pelled Gandhi but are at the core of the strat­egy of the Hin­dutva brigade,” said Raghav Gaiha, an hon­orary pro­fes­so­rial fel­low at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester.

The par­ti­san and sec­tar­ian clashes dom­i­nat­ing New Delhi to­day stand in sharp con­trast to the ideals that an­i­mated Gandhi’s move­ment. Com­mit­ted to a di­verse In­dia, the Fa­ther of the Na­tion fa­mously said he could never force any­one to stop slaugh­ter­ing cows given that In­dia is not a na­tion only of Hin­dus.

Gandhi helped spawn a po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion that has long been at odds with Mr. Modi’s too.

The Hindu na­tion­al­ist group called the Rashtriya Swayam­se­vak Sangh, which later launched the BJP as its po­lit­i­cal wing, clashed with Gandhi when he was alive and re­port­edly cel­e­brated his as­sas­si­na­tion by a former RSS mem­ber by dis­tribut­ing sweets, said Mr. Joshi.

Gandhi is not re­lated to the fa­mil­ial Nehru-Gandhi dy­nasty that pro­duced three prime min­is­ters, as well as present Congress Party lead­ers So­nia and Rahul Gandhi. But dur­ing the in­de­pen­dence move­ment, he was its pres­i­dent from 1921 to 1928. Though BJP lead­ers say that was a dif­fer­ent en­tity from the one that ex­ists to­day, the mod­ern Congress Party re­mains the BJP’s largest ri­val in In­dian pol­i­tics.

For Mr. Modi, em­brac­ing Gandhi is one way of ris­ing above his crit­ics’ ac­cu­sa­tions as he at­tempts to re­make him­self from the busi­ness-friendly re­former of the 2014 cam­paign to the cham­pion of the masses now that he is the coun­try’s leader, said com­men­ta­tor N. Chan­dra Mo­han, a long­time ed­i­tor at sev­eral of In­dia’s top news­pa­pers.

“It’s very es­sen­tial for [the BJP and its sup­port­ers] to oc­cupy the na­tional space,” said Mr. Mo­han. “They’re no longer just a ma­jori­tar­ian party. Modi is the ruler of In­dia. They’ve never had this stature be­fore.”

But where Gandhi and the Hindu na­tion­al­ists con­verge — on clean­li­ness, love for Hindu cul­ture, the idea of achiev­ing self-reliance by man­u­fac­tur­ing in In­dia and con­ser­va­tive moral­ity — Mr. Modi can wrap him­self in the same loin­cloth, added Mr. Mo­han.

It may well be work­ing.

This year, on the 2017 cal­en­dar pro­duced by the Khadi Vil­lage In­dus­tries Com­mis­sion, which has long fea­tured the fa­mous im­age of Gandhi at the spin­ning wheel, Mr. Modi is now spin­ning the yarn. Gandhi ad­vo­cated boy­cotting Bri­tish-made cloth and wear­ing only khadi, or “home­spun.”

In Mum­bai, em­ploy­ees staged a silent “soul-cleans­ing rit­ual” in protest, pray­ing be­fore a statue of Gandhi with black cloth over their mouths in Jan­uary. How­ever, the protest failed to gain trac­tion.

BJP spokesman Tarun Vijay said it was unfair to link the in­de­pen­dence leader with the mod­ern Congress party, and Gandhi’s ideas find many echoes among to­day’s Hindu na­tion­al­ists.

“Gandhi was not Congress, he was a free­dom fighter,” said Mr. Vijay. “The Bharatiya Janata Party un­der Modi is the liv­ing em­bod­i­ment of the Gand­hian val­ues.


BLASPHEMER: Some In­di­ans find Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s invoking Ma­hatma Gandhi to tout his agenda, such as plumb­ing ad­vances, dis­taste­ful.

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