How to turn a great leader into a mock icon: The quarrel over who inherits Gandhi
The argument over who inherits Gandhi has started much before the 150th birth anniversary of the great man being celebrated this year. The earlier quarrel was between Gandhians who went into the Sarvodaya movement like Acharya Vinoba Bhave, later joined by Jayaprakash Narayan – who renounced politics and went into Gandhian social work in the 1950s as he had once renounced socialism to adopt Gandhian politics in the 1940s – and the leaders of the Congress party and Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.
The ‘Gandhians’ felt that Congress in power had abandoned Gandhi, and that Congress just paid lip service to the once unchallenged commanderin-chief of the freedom movement. Congress had no option but to give up on Gandhian politics because governing the country is a different ball game from the grassroots politics that Gandhi had practised.
Gandhian agitation, including fasts unto death, had become a big irritant to the Congress government in post-Independence decades. Gandhi did make popular protests an effective political weapon and many who had no idea about the moral underpinnings of ‘satyagraha’ resorted to street agitations to bring duly elected governments to their knees. Gandhi does not own the intellectual property right over street protests. They made their appearance on the political stage during the French Revolution. And in India, we witness the early street
Gandhi as a political radical did not believe in government and in the state, a troubling aspect for all parties and leaders in government
protests at the time of partition of Bengal in 1905.
Gandhi remained a useful inspirational figure for politicians and the people to venerate, and for everyone to ask often enough what Gandhi would have done in a situation. It will be futile speculation that perhaps Gandhi would have understood the compulsions of a government. Gandhi as a political radical did not believe in government and in the state, a
the troubling aspect for all parties and leaders in government. Gandhi let the institution of government be and this can be seen in the fact that he allowed the Congress Party to fight elections in the provinces in 1937 under the India Act of 1935, and earlier he let the Swaraj Party, founded by Motilal Nehru and Chittaranjan Das, to enter the legislatures in 1923.
The quarrel over Gandhi became acute when Prime Minister Narendra Modi adopted Gandhi as the motivating figure for the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), using Gandhi’s engagement with the issue of sanitation and his act of cleaning toilets as part of his political programme. The objection to Modi using Gandhi for the SBM was not whether it was Gandhian to use state machinery to implement a social programme which Gandhi would have wanted to be done on a voluntary basis at the grassroots level. The critics wanted to nail Modi and the BJP to the original sin of the Hindutva brigade – which opposed Gandhi’s Hindu-Muslim unity plank while a renegade among them, Nathuram Godse, killed the Mahatma for this.
The legitimate question being asked by the opponents of Hindutva politics is how they could accept Gandhi while ignoring his principled advocacy of minority rights. BJP and the Hindutva ideologues continue to be silent on the issue while silently using Gandhi’s cleanliness campaign for the SBM. Here too, Gandhi was fighting a caste battle on behalf of the scavengers. But Modi and BJP gloss over it because they seem to think that the problem of scavenging could be solved without raking up the issue with its implied social injustice.
No political party, especially one in power, can ever hope to follow Gandhian ideas. The failure of the Hindutva party becomes sharper because of the glaring opposition between its majoritarian ideology and Gandhi’s uncompromising defense of the minorities, particularly Muslims. The doctrinaire right-wingers would call Gandhi an appeaser, and one of Godse’s reasons for assassinating Gandhi was that he was appeasing Muslims and Pakistan. Modi and BJP have a difficult time coping with this difficult question. Tactical silence is the only escape route.
Gandhi cannot even be appropriated by agitators like the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) or Anna Hazare because they lack Gandhi’s political astuteness in dealing with those in authority. Gandhi did not ever want to humiliate and dominate those in power. He knew when to step back and allow the government to make small concessions and retain its respect and dignity.