SOFTPOWER

Is the Mahatma more in demand overseas than in India today?

Quartz india
Quartz india

Djibouti is not a usual tourist destination.

It is a small country on the Horn of Africa with a population of less than a million. Surrounded by Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, it lies next to Africa’s badlands. The biggest advantage it has is its access to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, which makes it a busy refuelling and transshipment centre.

So why am I talking of Djibouti?

Visuals of Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying tribute at a statue of Mahatma Gandhi during his recent visit to the United States reminded me of my trip to the Horn of Africa a few years ago. And to my surprise I found that just as he stands tall outside the Indian embassy in Washington, the Mahatma lives in Djibouti too.

Armed soldiers manned the dusty roundabout where his bust stood when I visited. Stray dogs lazed under military vehicles and bored soldiers hung around, nervously playing with their automatic weapons.

The surroundings were at odds with a man who preached peace and non-violence, but there he was as he is in several countries—bald, round spectacles sitting on his nose, looking at a world where his teachings are still relevant and another that has left him behind.

What was Gandhi doing there, I wondered aloud. Oh, he is everywhere, responded an Indian diplomat who was part of a group visiting Djibouti for the inauguration of a new Dubai-funded port.

Brand Gandhi

Indeed, the Mahatma is omnipresent in afterlife. He is the most famous brand India has produced. The boost to the country’s soft power through his statues and busts that dot public spaces across continents is not only huge, but also enduring. He has now lived in the hearts and mind of billions for nearly 80 years since his assassination. And by the looks of it, he isn’t fading away soon.

The “half-naked fakir”, as Winston Churchill famously called him, is a face probably better recognized than those of most Bollywood actors. In fact, probably better known than that of Churchill, the man who hated the Mahatma and whose rivalry brought the British Empire down.

Gandhi, like Churchill, died a broken man. Politically irrelevant after he guided India to independence, Gandhi’s legacy at home has been constantly debated. However, his contribution to India’s global image is unparalleled.

As British India broke into two and millions of people perished in pre- and post-partition violence, Gandhi, shunned by his disciples, virtually retired, bitterly complaining that nobody listened to him anymore. His murder, by a religious fanatic, however, changed the course of events. In his death he achieved what he couldn’t when he lived—bring a turbulent nation together and stop the gory dance of violence that had enveloped the infant republic.

His martyrdom eventually put him on history’s high pedestal and made him acceptable globally as an apostle of peace, ensuring his brand of politics remained relevant. In India, politicians, convulsing against his political thought, consigned him to school text books—bringing him alive on his death and birth anniversaries for formal ceremonies that involved the twice annual ritual of cleaning bird droppings from his statues and naming public schemes after him.

A different path

Frank Moraes, the editor of The Times of India, recounted a conversation with HSL Polak—one of Gandhi’s close associates in South Africa—in an article he wrote for the Foreign Affairs journal to mark the Mahatma’s 10th death anniversary in 1958. He asked Polak how much of Gandhi’s teaching he thought survived in India. “Ostensibly a great deal… In reality, very little,” said Polak.

Indeed, neither India nor the Congress Party ever accepted Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence as creed. “The Congress Party, including Nehru and other prominent leaders such as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, accepted non-violence but only as a method. With them it was an instrument of political practice, not an article of faith,” wrote Moraes.

In the 56 years since his article, the situation has only worsened. Very little of the Mahatma’s politics has survived in India; we could, however, despite our reluctance, take pride in our ability to export an enduring brand. It is perhaps more relevant to the world than to India, mostly because we have chosen to take a path different from his.

That probably was a good reason why Richard Attenborough’s film on the man many Britons hated won the Oscar for best film. That probably was also the reason for the U.S. Congress to pass a special legislation allowing the Mahatma’s statute in Washington to be installed on government land.

While we, as a nation, use him on occasions of political exigencies, the world only wants more of Gandhi for his political thought.

Myriad Mahatmas

Indeed, the metallic Mahatma is much in demand. Under a well-structured programme run jointly by India’s overseas missions, which work out the modalities of the placement of statues and busts, and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) that pays the sculptors who make the statutes, replicas of the bespectacled apostle of peace are regularly shipped to the world.

Between 2001 and 2010, nearly 70 busts and statues of the Mahatma were sent to dozens of countries by the ICCR. That’s an average of seven a year. The bust I saw in Djibouti was sent in 2003 for installation on a street named after the Mahatma. The cigar chewing Mr. Churchill, who never regretted his long-time rival’s death, hasn’t had it so good!

The Mahatma’s statue is due to be unveiled at the Parliament Square in London next year alongside those of Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela—the man who was so influenced by Gandhi as he led his people to an apartheid-free South Africa. Churchill’s statue is one of the 10 already erected at this place.

Owning Gandhi

Here, at home, he still has an occasional use. The stamp of moral authority that he has left on this nation means the Mahatma—though a Congress man—can be greedily adopted by other political parties when required. Modi’s effort to make him the face of his “Clean India” campaign is just another example of Gandhi’s use for political convenience.

Despite promising to build a towering statue of Patel in the run up to the general elections that swept him to power, Modi now wants his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government to own “Brand Gandhi” and take over the events that mark the death and birth anniversaries of the Mahatma. Up until now, these ceremonies were the responsibility of a special committee constituted by an Act of parliament.

The Mahatma’s adoption by the BJP—the political face of an organization whose members celebrated the Mahatma’s death—is ironic, but then that’s the strength of a brand that has endured the rough and tumble of time.

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