GURGAON, India: The ideal candidate, India’s oldest political party says on the registration form for an upcoming state election, is a teetotaller who prefers “khadi,” homespun cotton fabrics, in the style of iconic independence leader Mahatma Gandhi.
“It’s like an ode to Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary,” said Congress party spokesman Pranav Jha.
India’s two biggest parties — Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party — are tripping over themselves to outdo each other in emulating and celebrating Gandhi, an anti-colonial icon who made Congress into a vehicle for the independence movement.
Both parties have ordered officials to undertake Gandhi-inspired pilgrimages, walking up to 15km a day in their constituencies and sleeping in villages, beginning on Wednesday, the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth and a national holiday in India.
Congress, now the main opposition party, enjoyed decades of popularity after independence but suffered huge losses in the last two general elections. The BJP, the governing party of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, promotes Hindu nationalism and won a landslide victory in this spring’s polls.
The reason such different parties can lay claim to Gandhi is his complex message, which can get lost in the political mayhem.
Gandhi was the close confidante of India’s first prime minister, Jawarhalal Nehru, the Congress party standard-bearer. Nehru and other Congress members wrote Gandhi’s dedication to secular pluralism into India’s constitution.
So how relevant is Gandhi today? Do people still believe in his ideals?
Historian and journalist Vivek Shukla says: “With his endeavours, Gandhi set himself apart. He is relevant and will stay so, because he was not only India’s hero, but also considered a world hero, whose statues are installed across the world. He not only fought for the rights of the untouchables in India, but also for people in South Africa, which, unfortunately, has been ignored or forgotten.”
Shukla, who has written a book ‘Gandhi’s Delhi’, that captures Gandhi’s abiding bond with the city, strongly feels the need to question why Gautam Buddha, an apostle of peace, is not talked about when it comes to the subject. “After all, he was the Enlightened One. But yes, Gandhi had the ability to turn an idea into a movement and so much about him and his ideals were unique. Still, there also lies the fact that the man who was revered the world over, faced rebellion from his own son Harilal Gandhi, at home!” he adds.
Gandhi is often referred to as a complex figure my many. Nevertheless, he is credited for widespread movements, including the Swadeshi movement and Quit India, which shook the British Empire and finally resulted in opening the doors to freedom. Importantly, the Swadeshi movement, which meant the rejection and boycott of ‘Manufactured in Britain’ goods, needed nothing more than demonstrating in front of shops that sold such goods. The boycott led to millions of women getting engaged in the spinning and weaving the khadi fabric.
As historian Anirudh Deshpande puts it: “The teachings of Gandhi are still relevant because the world is still the same as was then. There is violence, consumerism and industrialism. Today, in an intolerant world, we need to accept the dissenting voices.
“Gandhi called for peace, democracy and cooperation, which are ideals in the face of imperialism, colonialism, oppression and poverty. He gave a rare message of humanism, tolerance, transparency and non-violence at that time. His message was that we should not force others to follow our own set of beliefs. That sounds pragmatic for today’s society.”
Even as the country remembers Gandhi today, another historian Farhat Hasan says, “At this time of so much political, religious and cultural hostility, I strongly feel we need to return to the Gandhian thought. With all the violence that we see in India and around the world, Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence holds much water. He taught us the basic principles of how to lead a simple life sans falsity and violence.”
On Wednesday, the Congress party’s interim president, Sonia Gandhi, will lead her own Gandhi-inspired foot-pilgrimage in Delhi from the party headquarters to Mahatma Gandhi’s burial place on the Yamuna River.
“Mahatma Gandhi will always remain the guiding light and driving force behind the Congress party,” said Pranav Jha, a Congress party spokesman.
Congress is left of centre, secular and social-democratic, and has produced six of India’s 14 prime ministers.
“But there is a growing number of voters who don’t believe this family is the future of the party,” said Gaurav Rathore, a political strategist in Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi.
Beyond Gandhi, the BJP has moved in recent years to claim that many of India’s founding fathers — including Sardhar Patel, the country’s first deputy prime minister, and Babasaheb Ambedkar, who was explicitly anti-Hindutva — align with its agenda.
But whether from Congress, the BJP or any other party, much of the modern political engagement with Gandhi is conducted at a surface level: imitating his clothes and long walks, or using visual symbols.
The logo of the Swacch Bharat, or ‘Clean India,’ campaign started by Prime Minister Modi is the instantly recognisable image of Gandhi’s round eyeglasses.
“Gandhi’s name and symbols lend a moral and anti-colonial character to everything,” said Dwivedi. But his actual proposals, such as reviving Indian villages and anti-consumerism, are “much harder to follow — for any party.”
— with inputs by Nilima Pathak, Correspondent