How to turn a great leader into a mock icon: The quar­rel over who in­her­its Gandhi

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - An Epiphany Of Ideas - Parsa Venkatesh­war Rao Jr

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.

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